Bhishma and Krishna: The Story of their Relationship

Bhishma and Krishna are two of the most important characters of the Mahabharata.

Bhishma is the son of Ganga and Shantanu. He is raised as the crown-prince of Hastinapur, but circumstances intrude and he ends up never becoming king in his life.

Krishna is the son of Devaki and Vasudeva. He grows up to found the kingdom of Anarta for the Yadavas, and builds a capital city named Dwaraka on the edge of the western ocean.

In this post, we will examine the relationship between Bhishma and Krishna.

(For a comprehensive resource on Bhishma, see Bhishma: 14 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

First Meeting

The first meeting between Bhishma and Krishna happens off-screen. So we may have to engage in a bit of speculation here.

The first time Krishna makes an appearance in the Mahabharata story among the northern kingdoms is at Draupadi’s swayamvara. Up until this point, both Krishna and Balarama are busy uniting the Vrishni factions and building the kingdom of Anarta.

Before this, therefore, it is unlikely that Bhishma and Krishna’s paths have ever crossed.

Sure, they may have heard of each other. Bhishma’s reputation in the world is immense. And Krishna has built some fame (or notoriety, depending on how you look at it) for himself by the way he killed Kamsa.

Stories of ever-present violence between Mathura and Magadha also would have reached Hastinapur.

But an actual in-person meeting between the two men would not have occurred until the coronation of Yudhishthir as king of Khandavaprastha.

Though we are not told about it, a ceremony must have been organized for the occasion. And Krishna must have attended.

At the Rajasuya

The first time that Bhishma and Krishna are shown occupying the same room together is during Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya.

In this ceremony, when Krishna is offered the highest honour (of accepting the ‘first offering’, or arghya), Shishupala the king of Chedi rises in indignation and casts aspersion on the Yadava prince.

It is Bhishma who debates with Shishupala in defence of Krishna. Among other things, Bhishma praises Krishna for being more than deserving of every honour in the world.

Interestingly, Bhishma also tells Shishupala that Krishna is none other than an avatar of Vishnu. ‘He is the Prime Mover of all things, O King of Chedi,’ he says. ‘You will do well to keep your mouth shut.’

While we still do not know how Bhishma came to know so much about Krishna without ever meeting him, we know from this exchange that Bhishma has very high regard for the prince from Dwaraka.

Before the War

Another time when Krishna and Bhishma meet is during the former’s visit to Hastinapur to speak for peace on behalf of the Pandavas.

Here, among other things, Krishna lays some of the blame for the Pandava-Kaurava conflict at Bhishma’s feet. He says that if Bhishma had been more decisive in his doing his duty, the Kuru princes would not have grown up hating one another.

He also criticizes Bhishma for not possessing the will to rein in Duryodhana, and to advise Dhritarashtra.

Bhishma accepts all of Krishna’s words, and proclaims himself not strong enough to perform the role of adviser. But he vows to protect the throne of Hastinapur at all costs, regardless of who is sitting on it.

Krishna and Bhishma once again lock horns during the battle. On two separate occasions, Krishna almost attacks Bhishma in order to help the Pandavas win.

Did Krishna attack Bhishma?

Krishna does not actually attack Bhishma in the Mahabharata war. He merely comes close to doing so on a couple of occasions.

Frustrated at Arjuna’s unwillingness to fight Bhishma at full throttle, Krishna leaps off his chariot and advances toward the grandsire with his discus raised. Both times, Arjuna pacifies him before he can attack.

During the first ten days of the Kurukshetra war, Krishna is caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, Arjuna is the only warrior on the Pandava side who is capable of matching Bhishma’s skill on the battlefield.

But on the other, Arjuna repeatedly fights well within himself whenever he comes face to face with Bhishma. Bhishma, by contrast, adopts a strategy designed to obliterate the army of the Pandavas in order to deprive them of all resources with which to fight.

So unless Arjuna can be coaxed into fighting ruthlessly, Bhishma cannot be stopped. And unless Bhishma is stopped in time, the Pandavas may actually have no army with which to fight.

Krishna tries various methods to revive Arjuna’s spirit, but when nothing fails, he decides to take matters into his own hands and jumps off the chariot with his Sudarshana Chakra drawn around his forefinger, pointed at Bhishma.

Whether he truly wishes to attack Bhishma or if this is merely a ploy to bring Arjuna out of his rut, we do not know. But Bhishma surrenders to Krishna’s attack, almost daring him to let the discus fly.

(Here we must remember that if Krishna actually attacks Bhishma, the Pandavas lose all moral high ground in the war. Bhishma, therefore, wants Krishna to forswear his oath.)

On both occasions, Arjuna drags Krishna back to the chariot and promises to fight properly. The second of these incidents happen on the ninth day, soon after which Arjuna agrees to fight Bhishma from behind Shikhandi.

Why did Krishna attack Bhishma?

By the ninth day of the Kurukshetra war, Bhishma has resolved to fighting almost exclusively against the common soldiers of the Pandava army, in a bid to deplete the Pandava fighting forces.

Krishna notices that Arjuna is reluctant to fight Bhishma, and in his anger, leaps from his chariot and attacks him himself.

Twice during the first nine days does Krishna get irritated by Arjuna’s behaviour when they come up against Bhishma. Krishna notices that Arjuna is not stretching himself to the fullest of his abilities, that he is still reeling with guilt at having to fight his grandfather.

What makes this worse is that Bhishma has meanwhile decided to ruthlessly fight against the army of the Panchalas, so that the Pandavas will be soon left without an army with which to fight.

Arjuna is the only warrior capable of stopping Bhishma in his tracks, and he refuses to fight him wholeheartedly. This angers Krishna to the point where he throws away his whip, and holding the Sudarshana Chakra aloft, makes to attack Bhishma himself.

Bhishma reacts to this by throwing his bow away and surrendering to Krishna, saying, ‘It is an honour that I get to die in your hands, Madhava.’ In his mind he is probably thinking: If I can get Krishna to break his oath, then the war might be called off.

Arjuna, for his part, runs after Krishna, falls at his feet, and drags him back to the chariot with promises to do better.

Whether Krishna truly meant to attack Bhishma or whether he meant this just to ignite Arjuna’s warrior instincts, we don’t know. But after the second of these incidents, Krishna decides that enough is enough and that Bhishma has to be removed from the battlefield.

On the tenth day, therefore, he asks Shikhandi to act as Arjuna’s shield as the Pandava shoots arrow after arrow at Bhishma.

(Suggested: Why did Krishna attack Bhishma?)

Can Krishna defeat Bhishma?

Krishna, in the Mahabharata, is considered the incarnation of Vishnu. During Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya, Bhishma describes Krishna as all-powerful, all-seeing, and all-moving.

As such, Krishna is powerful enough to defeat the entire army of the Kurus in the blink of an eye – including Bhishma.

However, if we view this claim of an all-powerful Krishna with scepticism and insist on looking at evidence alone, Bhishma is no pushover. Even at hundred years old during the Kurukshetra war, he gives a tough battle to Arjuna, the greatest archer of them all.

In his prime, Bhishma is known to perform various incredible feats:

  • He goes to the swayamvara of Amba, Ambika and Ambalika in a single chariot, defeats all the assembled suitors, and brings the princesses back to Hastinapur.
  • He defeats Sage Parashurama in a duel to settle Amba’s grievances.
  • He serves as the regent of the Kuru house for more than eighty years, during which the kingdom becomes the most powerful one in the land. He does not lose a single battle in all this time.
  • He is the son of Ganga. Therefore, he has divine blood running through his veins.

Given all of this, a battle between Krishna and Bhishma is likely to be hard-fought. Krishna probably has an edge over the grandsire, but if we run the simulation a hundred times, we might expect Bhishma to secure about twenty victories.

(Suggested: Can Krishna defeat Bhishma?)

Mutual Respect with Disagreements

All in all, it is fair to say that there is plenty of mutual respect between Bhishma and Krishna.

On Bhishma’s side, he knows that Krishna is one of the most powerful men in the world. He admires Krishna for having build Anarta into a great kingdom without resorting to violence except in defence. He thinks Krishna is an incarnation of a god.

From Krishna’s point of view, Bhishma is deserving of respect for being the staunch patriarch of the Kuru family. But he disagrees in the blind support that Bhishma gives to the throne of Hastinapur even when a tyrant takes control of it.

Krishna honours his vow of not picking up any weapons during the Kurukshetra war. He makes use of questionable tactics to remove Bhishma from the battlefield.

Bhishma honours his vow of fighting to the best of his ability for his king: Duryodhana.

In this way, the two men perform what they see as their respective roles on opposite sides of the conflict without once losing respect for one another.

Further Reading

If you liked this post, you will probably also enjoy: Krishna: 40+ Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.