Bhishma: 14 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered

Bhishma all questions answered - Featured Image - Picture of a young Bhishma

Bhishma is the most long-standing character in the Mahabharata. He is the eighth son of Ganga, the divine river goddess, and Shantanu the king of Hastinapur.

Bhishma’s original name is Devavrata. During his sixteenth year, he takes a lifelong oath of celibacy in order to ensure that his father can wed the fisher princess, Satyavati.

He later becomes the patriarch and guardian of the Kuru throne, guiding his half-brothers Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya through their reigns before advising Pandu and Dhritarashtra through theirs.

In the Kurukshetra war, Bhishma fights on the side of the Kauravas against the Pandavas. He falls on the tenth day to a deceptive tactic employed by Krishna, though he does not die until much after the war.

In this post, we will answer all the questions you’ve ever had about Bhishma.

How did Bhishma die?

In the Mahabharata, Bhishma is first defeated by Arjuna on the tenth day of the war. Bhishma falls on a bed of arrows and stays suspended on it till the war ends. Then, he discourses the victorious Yudhishthir on various aspects of morality and politics before choosing an opportune time for breathing his last.

Bhishma has a boon given him by Shantanu that he can choose the moment of his death. It is not clear how Shantanu received this ability to bestow such a potent gift on someone.

But when Bhishma takes the lifelong vow of celibacy in order to ensure Shantanu can marry Satyavati, the king – overcome by gratitude for his son – blesses him with this power.

During the Kurukshetra war, Bhishma fights with such ferocity and ruthlessness over the first nine days that Krishna begins to worry that the Pandavas will soon be left without an army. He exhorts Yudhishthir to find a way – just or unjust – to stop the grandsire.

Bhishma himself gives his grandchildren the secret to his defeat. ‘I will fight anyone on the battlefield,’ he says, ‘except when my opponent is either a woman or has once been a woman.’

In the Pandava ranks, it is common knowledge that Shikhandi, the son of Drupada, had once been a woman. On the tenth day, therefore, Arjuna uses Shikhandi as a shield and attacks Bhishma. By sundown, the old man is pierced all over his body with arrows.

He falls onto his arrow-bed and stays suspended on it for the war’s remaining duration. He watches proceedings as they unfold. But he does not die.

Only after the war has come to an end, and after he has had a lengthy discussion with the victorious Yudhishthir about a vast array of topics – all of which make up the Shanti and Anushasana Parvas – Bhishma takes his last breath.

Detailed Answers: How did Bhishma die? | Who killed Bhishma?

How did Bhishma know about Karna?

At the fall of Bhishma, all the warriors participating in the war come to pay respects to him. After all of them have departed for the night, Karna visits the fallen patriarch. Bhishma then tells Karna, ‘I know your true identity, my son. The island-born sage told me before the war began who you really are.’

Bhishma does not give us – or Karna – any more information about the meeting between him and Vyasa, so we’re left to speculate about the timing and nature of it.

It does seem likely that Bhishma does not know about Karna’s true identity at the time of their quarrel. It is difficult to imagine Bhishma treating Karna with the same amount of disdain if he had known that the king of Anga is in truth a Pandava.

So Vyasa must have paid Bhishma a visit on the eve of the war’s first day (or a day or two before that) and told him of Karna’s secret. Why did he do it?

We don’t know. Perhaps Vyasa also hoped that this knowledge would allow Bhishma to exert what little influence he has over Karna to make him switch sides. Krishna has already tried this and failed. Perhaps Vyasa thought it could not hurt for Bhishma to have a go as well.

Interestingly, Bhishma makes no move in this matter throughout the first nine days, during which Karna is boycotting the battle. This suggests that Bhishma intends to fight in this war indefinitely, and he expects to stay alive at the end of it.

His plan is to protect Karna by keeping him out of the battle. As for the rest of the Pandavas, Bhishma will make sure that they will not get hurt. He will deplete their armies and fighting resources, but he will not harm them.

How did Bhishma get his name?

Bhishma’s birth name is Devavrata. In his sixteenth year, when he discovers that his father Shantanu is in love with Satyavati, he takes a lifelong vow of celibacy in order to ensure that Satyavati’s children have no rivals to the Kuru throne. This vow is considered so ‘terrible’ that the gods bestow on Devavrata the name of Bhishma.

Devavrata is born of the union between Shantanu, king of Hastinapur, and Ganga the river goddess. Shortly after his birth, Ganga takes him away to heaven and rears him there.

He is taught by Parashurama and Vasishtha. He grows up in the company of celestials. Then, after he turns sixteen, Ganga brings him back and hands him over to Shantanu – who makes him crown prince.

At this juncture, Shantanu happens to meet a captivating woman called Satyavati, whom he wishes to marry. But Satyavati’s father refuses the match, pointing out that his daughter’s future children will have no status in the royal household because the crown has already been bequeathed to Devavrata.

Shantanu is crestfallen at this turn of events. But Devavrata resolves the matter by promising Satyavati’s father that he will never marry or have children. And the only way to ensure this is to take the vow of lifelong celibacy.

If he is not going to have sexual intercourse, he will not have children. End of story.

This vow – taken by a future king – is considered so ‘terrible’ that the gods immediately bestow upon Devavrata the title of Bhishma.

Even today, if someone takes a pledge (a ‘pratignya’) that involves a lot of self-inflicted suffering to achieve a greater, common good, he is said to have taken a Bhishma Pratignya.

Detailed Answer: How did Bhishma get his name?

How was Bhishma born?

Bhishma is the eighth son born of the union between Shantanu, the king of Hastinapur, and Ganga the river goddess. He is the human incarnation of Prabhasa, the youngest of the eight Vasus – who are celestial beings that regulate the elements. Owing to Vasishtha’s curse, Prabhasa alone is destined to live a long and abstinent life on Earth.

The story of Bhishma’s birth is also the story of two curses: one which is laid on a king called Mahabhisha who is ordered to take birth on Earth as Shantanu. Ganga is commanded to become his wife and to give him sons.

The other curse involves the theft of Vasishtha’s cow, Nandini. It so happens that Prabhasa, the youngest of the eight elemental gods, plays a prank on Vasishtha and steals Nandini from the hermitage.

He takes the help of his brothers in this project, and the whole act is designed as a means to impress his wife.

When Vasishtha comes to know of this, he curses all eight Vasus with that most terrible of punishments: banishment to an earthly life. But because Prabhasa is more culpable than the others, Vasishtha decrees that the other seven will only have to endure short lives on Earth – whereas the youngest Vasu will go through an entire lifetime.

‘And because you did this out of desire for a woman,’ Vasishtha says, ‘you will not know the pleasure of a woman’s company during your time as a human.’

So it happens that Ganga drowns the first seven of her sons in herself (in the river), but the eighth gets rescued by Shantanu. The boy grows up to become Bhishma.

Detailed Answer: How was Bhishma born?

How was Bhishma so powerful?

Bhishma’s power in the Mahabharata comes from the following sources: (1) He is the son of a goddess and a king, so he has pedigree; (2) During the first few years of his life, he has access to the celestial world; (3) He is fortunate that he does not become a king, so he has time and emotional bandwidth to keep his fighting skills from waning.

There is no doubt that Bhishma has plenty of natural talent for fighting and battle strategy. But it is also true that he is born into a life of privilege that is denied to many.

For starters, he is the son of a goddess and a king. If there is any truth to bloodlines, Bhishma’s is of the highest quality that any man can hope to achieve.

In addition to this, Ganga takes Bhishma away to Heaven for the first sixteen years of his life, where he receives education from the likes of Vasishtha and Parashurama. He also gets access to other facilities that are available to heaven-dwellers.

By the time he is sixteen, therefore, Bhishma is already an accomplished archer, scriptural scholar and administrator. Ganga has been preparing him for life as a king.

After his vow of celibacy, Bhishma is also fortunate that he does not become king of Hastinapur at any point. Though he serves as regent, commander and adviser to his wards, he never takes up the full on responsibility of a ruler.

Neither does he take on the life of a householder, so the distractions that afflict other men – such as wives, sons, lineage and so on – do not touch him. He uses that time and emotional space to stay at the cutting edge of his battle prowess.

Add to all this the fact that sons of gods and goddesses are automatically afforded high status in the world of men, and it is easy to see why Bhishma becomes a towering figure of power in the Mahabharata.

Detailed Answer: How was Bhishma so powerful?

Bhishma is the son of Shantanu by Ganga, a river goddess. Shantanu’s second wife, Satyavati, has two sons, Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya. Vichitraveerya’s wives – through the help of Vyasa – give birth to Pandu and Dhritarashtra. The Pandavas are Pandu’s sons. Bhishma, therefore, is grandfather to the Pandavas.

By virtue of his vow of celibacy, which he takes in order to allow Shantanu to marry Satyavati, Bhishma does not have any children of his own. He does not have any brothers of his own either because Ganga kills all seven of her children before him.

In his own line, therefore, Bhishma is the end. His personal dynasty ends with him.

However, Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya become Bhishma’s half-brothers because the three of them share the same father, Shantanu. Bhishma crowns Chitrangada king at first, and helps him rule the city.

Both Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya, though, die childless. Satyavati then summons her son Vyasa (whose biological father is Parashara) to impregnate Vichitraveerya’s wives (Ambika and Ambalika).

Out of these unions are born Dhritarashtra (to Ambika) and Pandu (to Ambalika). These two boys are not the biological sons of Vichitraveerya, but they’re considered to be adopted by the dead man.

So Bhishma, by default, becomes the adoptive uncle to Dhritrarashtra and Pandu. We must note that there is no biological link between him and the two princes.

Later, when the Pandavas and Kauravas are born, Bhishma plays the role of their grandfather. But the truth remains that he is in no way biologically related to them.

Detailed Answer: How was Bhishma related to the Pandavas?

How old was Bhishma when he died?

Bhishma is 101 years old during the events of the Mahabharata war. Bhishma is the longest-living character of the Mahabharata, and can be cited as the one man who has the most impact on all the important events of the epic. The story of the Mahabharata can actually be viewed as the life and times of Bhishma.

If we consider the birth of Bhishma as Year Zero of the Mahabharata, we can build a tentative timeline of the main events in the following fashion:

Year 16: Bhishma returns to Shantanu. Becomes the heir-apparent to the throne of Hastinapur. Shantanu meets Satyavati / Matsyagandhi. Bhishma takes the vow of celibacy to reassure Satyavati that her sons would become kings. Shantanu marries Satyavati.

Year 30: At the age of thirteen, Chitrangada accepts a challenge to battle a Gandharva of the same name, and dies. Vichitraveerya ascends the throne. He is twelve.

Year 36: Dhritarashtra is born. Vyasa impregnates Ambalika.

Year 37: Pandu is born. Vyasa impregnates an unnamed waiting woman.

Year 38: Vidura is born.

Year 55: Yudhishthir is born to Kunti. Gandhari beats her stomach and delivers a grotesque mass of flesh. Vyasa arrives, tears off a hundred and one pieces from the ball of tissue, and places them in a hundred and one pots.

Year 70: The graduation ceremony. Karna appears for the first time. Yudhishthir is fifteen, so we arbitrarily place Karna’s age at around eighteen.

Year 86: The forest of Khandava is destroyed. The palace of illusions is built by Maya. Yudhishthir performs the Rajasuya. Shishupala is killed by Krishna.

Year 100: The Pandavas return to Hastinapur and ask for their kingdom back. Krishna performs the role of emissary in vain. Battle lines are drawn.

Year 101: The Kurukshetra war begins. It lasts eighteen fateful days. Everyone dies. After a short period of time during which he coaches Yudhishthir on how to rule and govern, Bhishma also dies.

Detailed Answer: How old was Bhishma? A Mahabharata Timeline

Why did Bhishma not marry?

Bhishma did not marry because marriage would have forced on him the expectation to have children. And his children would compete for the throne of Hastinapur against Satyavati’s children. In order to give Satyavati’s sons free rein, Bhishma takes a vow not to marry, and not to have sex with any woman.

At the time of Shantanu’s meeting with Satyavati and his falling in love with her, Devavrata is the crown prince and is about to ascend to the throne of Hastinapur in a short while.

When Shantanu approaches Satyavati’s father for her hand in marriage, he tells the king, ‘The throne has already been given away to your son, O King. What will the children of my daughter be left with?’

Shantanu sees the logic in this argument. With Devavrata becoming king, it is his sons that will grow up to be kings after him. Satyavati and her children will have no status to speak of in the royal house.

When Devavrata hears of this conversation, he takes it upon himself to speak to Satyavati’s father on behalf of Shantanu. He promises that it is Satyavati’s children alone that will have a claim to the throne.

In order to facilitate this, Devavrata promises not only to never marry, but to also not have sex with any woman ever – because sex outside marriage may also result in children.

This vow is considered by everyone who witnesses it to be so terrible that the gods confer upon Devavrata the title of Bhishma.

As gratitude for all that his son has given up for him, Shantanu gives Bhishma the gift of choosing his moment of death. In other words, he is effectively an immortal with the option of dying if and when he wishes.

Detailed Answer: Why did Bhishma not marry?

Was Bhishma good?

Bhishma was by all accounts a good son, brother, uncle and grandfather. At all times, he places utmost importance on the safety and welfare of the Kuru dynasty. This means taking care of both the Pandavas and Kauravas equally. However, in later years, he displays a definite bias toward the Pandavas that eventually leads to the Kurukshetra war.

From the time of his vow, Bhishma throws everything he has behind the singular ambition to make Kuru the most powerful kingdom in the world. He pursues diplomatic expansion with fervour, forging alliances with the likes of Kasi, Kunti, Gandhara and Madra.

In a military sense as well, he builds Kuru into a fortress, making it especially more powerful than Panchala, its immediate eastern neighbour.

The problem begins in Bhishma’s life when Dhritarashtra is born blind and his younger brother, Pandu, grows up to be a more conventionally suited king. Bhishma supports Pandu’s coronation over Dhritarashtra’s.

This is an ethically grey area. On the one hand, there is precedent in Kuru’s own dynasty for a physically disabled older brother making way to a more suitable younger brother.

On the other hand, Pandu and Bhishma could easily have helped Dhritarashtra with areas of ruling the kingdom where blindness is a handicap, and allowed him to become his own man in other areas like administration and policy.

Also, even if we concede that Pandu can be king ahead of Dhritarashtra, it is not unfair for this arrangement to continue into the next generation. Why should Dhritarashtra’s firstborn – if he were perfectly able – forego the throne that is rightly his?

This decision by Bhishma sets him up for much criticism in the future by Duryodhana, who claims that the grandsire has failed in his duty to provide leadership and good judgement.

Detailed Answer: Was Bhishma good?

Was Bhishma a virgin?

There is a good chance that Bhishma is a virgin. However, we must allow for the possibility that in his long life, he might have met women who were past the age of childbearing who may have consented to sleep with him. It is also possible that he engaged in non-procreative intercourse with women.

The vow of celibacy that Bhishma takes is not just a practical vow to prevent all possibility of childbearing. A Brahmachari is supposed to cleanse his mind of all thoughts of uniting with a woman.

He becomes childlike in his mind, and gains mastery over the sexual thoughts that envelop him. A true Brahmachari, the kind that Bhishma becomes, will never even countenance the thought of sex for the rest of his life.

Whether this includes self-pleasure or not, we don’t know. But a pure Brahmachari will observe abstinence with that too.

Having said all this, we have to consider the possibility that in practice, over the course of his long life, Bhishma may have swerved from his chosen path occasionally.

This may have happened in any one of the following ways:

  • Bhishma may have sought partners among the female gender who are past the age of childbearing but are still sexually active. For a man in his position, finding such women would not have been difficult.
  • He may have sought fertile women for companionship, but with enough self-control to stop himself from impregnating them.
  • He may have sought members of genders other than female who cannot get pregnant.

There is of course no evidence for any of this, and there is a reasonable argument to be made that Bhishma stayed true to his vow in all respects. But it is also possible that he didn’t.

Detailed Answer: Was Bhishma a virgin?

Did Bhishma love Amba?

Bhishma does not love Amba. He wins her – and her two sisters, Ambika and Ambalika – as a prize for Vichitraveerya. When she expresses a wish to go to another man, he lets her. And when she asks him later to marry her, he refuses. His behaviour toward her is courteous and respectful – but never loving.

Amba does not love Bhishma either. When she comes back from Suvala and asks Bhishma to take her as wife, it is not desire that is pushing her but desperation.

After ruining the Vichitraveerya proposal, and after being rejected by Suvala, Amba sees her prospects evaporate rapidly in front of her eyes. So asks Bhishma to marry her as a last ditch effort to salvage something for herself.

When Bhishma refuses to marry her, Amba goes on a long voyage of retribution: first she tries to persuade Parashurama to convince Bhishma, and when that fails, she propitiates Lord Shiva and takes birth as Shikhandi in Drupada’s house.

She gets her long-thirsted-for revenge on the tenth day of the Kurukshetra war, when Arjuna uses her as a shield in a fight against Bhishma, and defeats him.

In all of this, there is no semblance of love between Bhishma and Amba. Of course, this does not mean that they do not secretly love each other and are for some reason acting contrarily.

But if we take their behaviour as guide to their intentions and emotions, we must conclude that Bhishma and Amba despised one another.

Did Bhishma attain moksha?

Bhishma certainly attained Moksha when he died at the end of the Kurukshetra war, having dispensed wisdom in all its forms to an attentive Yudhishthir. Later, when the Pandavas reach heaven, they see Bhishma among the many luminaries that sit with Indra in his court.

As the son of a goddess, a lot has to go wrong for Bhishma to not attain Moksha at his death. In fact, it is not a stretch to state that none of the godchildren that inhabit the Mahabharata universe fail to attain heaven after dying.

The greyest of these characters is Karna. As companion to Duryodhana, he commits many questionable deeds during his time on Earth. But even he gets a free pass into heaven after he dies.

Bhishma chooses a very auspicious time of the day to invite death through his door. Yudhishthir performs all necessary rites that are designed to send Bhishma’s soul on its way to its natural destination.

The one black mark on Bhishma’s life is the decision that he takes to sideline Dhritarashtra in Pandu’s favour. This may be termed an error in judgement more than an immoral act. But the choice has reverberations deep into the future, sowing the seeds of discord that will eventually destroy the Kuru race.

Another moment in which Bhishma carries himself less than ideally is during the disrobing of Draupadi. He allows himself to swept away with the legal argument raised by Karna, and refrains from supporting Draupadi as his granddaughter.

Besides these two questionable acts, Bhishma carries himself impeccably, and is finally rewarded with a place in heaven. He reunites with Prabhasa, the elemental of dawn, and takes his place among the celestials.

Could Bhishma defeat Arjuna?

At the beginning of the Pandavas’ exile, Bhishma is definitely more powerful than Arjuna and can easily defeat him. However, after Arjuna collects all of his divine weapons, by the time the Virata Parva ends, he becomes the fiercest warrior alive. Bhishma acknowledges that he cannot defeat this new and improved Arjuna.

Arjuna and Yudhishthir have a conversation during the first months of their exile about whether the Pandavas should forgive the Kauravas or fight them ferociously.

After a bit of back and forth, both brothers agree that regardless of which of the two – might or forgiveness – is the right choice, Bhishma and Drona are too powerful in any case for the Pandavas to defeat.

Arjuna then offers to set out on a long journey to complete as many quests and collect as many divine weapons as he can. During the course of the next five years, he transforms into an overpowered version of himself.

At the end of the Virata Parva, when the occasion calls for Arjuna – in the garb of Brihannala – to defend the kingdom of Matsya singlehandedly against the Kuru stalwarts, he does so without breaking sweat.

This show of power brings home to Bhishma just how strong Arjuna has become during the exile years. He later tells Duryodhana that Arjuna is in a class of his own as a warrior, even better than an atiratha.

However, Arjuna takes an oath before the war that he will not fight with any of his divine weapons. This restrained Arjuna is once again evenly matched against Bhishma. Arjuna also suffers immense guilt at fighting Bhishma, which shifts the balance somewhat.

All in all, Arjuna with his divine weapons is more than a match for Bhishma. But take away his weapons, force him to fight with earthly arrows alone, and throw in the fact that he is a reluctant fighter when faced against his grandfather – all of this gives Bhishma the upper hand.

Detailed Answer: Could Bhishma defeat Arjuna?

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.

Detailed Answer: Why did Krishna attack Bhishma?

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