Could Bhishma defeat Arjuna?

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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.

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 the question: 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.

Read on to discover more about whether Bhishma could defeat Arjuna.

(For answers to all Bhishma-related questions, see Bhishma: 14 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

Young Arjuna

When Arjuna is a young man growing up in the Kuru palace, under the tutelage of Dronacharya, he blossoms into a first-rate archer. Drona promises him that he will one day become the best archer in the world – of his generation.

To keep this promise, Drona sabotages the career of Ekalavya, and focuses much of his attention on Arjuna. As a result of all this, by the time of the Kuru princes’ graduation, Arjuna is easily the best archer of them all.

Still, he fails to become the undisputed best of his generation because Karna appears at the ceremony and matches all of Arjuna’s feats easily.

At this point, Bhishma is in his sixties (or seventies, depending on how you count), but he is comfortably better than any of these upstarts. The same is true of Drona.

Bhishma has all of the accumulated battle experience of seventy years in his head, not to mention the fact that he was also once the best warrior of his generation. (This he proves beyond doubt when he abducts Ambika and Ambalika from their swayamvara.)

Therefore, we can conclude that at this point in the story, Bhishma could easily defeat Arjuna if a duel had been arranged between them.

(Suggested: Why was Arjuna Invincible?)

Before the Exile

Between the graduation ceremony and the dice game, Arjuna improves as an archer considerably, thanks to some real life battle experiences, and also plenty of time to practice his art.

He also grows in status, finds the friendship of Krishna, and becomes a rounder person overall – which in turn helps his archery.

Despite this, at the beginning of the exile, he admits to Yudhishthir in a conversation that Drona and Bhishma are too strong to defeat in battle if they fight on Duryodhana’s side.

In fact, the purpose behind Arjuna’s quest to collect as many divine weapons as he can is to make himself powerful enough to withstand the might of those twin titans that are unfailingly loyal to the Kuru throne.

So if a battle had occurred between Bhishma and Arjuna during this phase of the story, we may safely say that it is the grandsire who would have won comfortably.

This is despite the fact that Bhishma is in his eighties at the time of the Pandavas’ departure.

Arjuna’s Transformation

After Yudhishthir agrees with Arjuna’s assessment of their relative strengths against those of Bhishma and Drona, the third Pandava departs on a five-year-long quest to collect as many divine weapons as he can.

First he wins the Pashupatastra from Shiva. Then he goes to Amaravati, his father Indra’s city, and conquers a class of Rakshasas called the Nivatakavachas. He also liberates a mountain called Hiranyapuri from a bunch of demons.

In order to help with these battles, Indra and the celestials present Arjuna with a number of divine weapons. Crucially, they do not take them back after the quest is complete. Arjuna gets to keep all of their gifts for good.

By the time he rejoins his brothers and wife, therefore, Arjuna has become a near-invincible warrior. The array of powerful weapons that he now wields dwarfs anything that Bhishma and Drona have in their quivers.

In addition to the weapons themselves, Arjuna has received more battle experience, having fought a number of enemies in various settings. He has even had a small skirmish with Shiva himself.

(Suggested: How did Arjuna get the Pashupatastra?)

Virata Parva Battle

At the time of the Virata Parva, Bhishma is in his nineties, so one cannot call him a young man anymore. He comes face to face with Arjuna during the attempted raid of Virata’s cattle – which Arjuna rescues in the garb of Brihannala.

Despite being a single warrior atop a chariot driven by Bhuminjaya (Virata’s son), Arjuna almost laughingly succeeds in routing the entire division of the Kuru army that has come to support Duryodhana in this mission.

Also in the army are all the great Kuru stalwarts: Drona, Bhishma, Kripa, Karna and Ashwatthama. Arjuna defeats them all single-handedly.

However, there is evidence here that Arjuna uses some of his celestial weapons to create illusions with them.

This battle proves that at this point in the story, Arjuna is far more powerful than any other archer in the world – of any age. If Bhishma had tussled with Arjuna personally, he would certainly have lost.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 30: Brihannala Defends Matsya.)

Kurukshetra

At Kurukshetra, the already powerful Arjuna becomes near invincible because he is now fighting:

  • With Krishna as his charioteer;
  • On top of Agni’s chariot which is indestructible;
  • With two quivers that are inexhaustible;
  • With the blessings of Hanuman, who lends his energy in the form of an image atop the chariot’s mast.

However, Arjuna does take a vow before the battle begins that he will not use any of his overpowered divine weapons during the war, except in self-defence.

This means that Arjuna will only bring out his divine weapons in retaliation: if his enemy casts a Brahmastra, for instance, he will do the same in its defensive form.

There is also a psychological component that weakens Arjuna. While he has been planning the battle for years, when faced with the prospect of fighting his own grandfather, Arjuna finds himself filled with reluctance and trepidation.

With these parameters in place, Bhishma suddenly becomes almost as powerful as Arjuna. As he proves during the first ten days of the war, he is more than a match for the Pandava, and Krishna has to resort to unfair means to topple the Kaurava regent.

(Suggested: How did Arjuna kill Bhishma?)

Bhishma in his prime

Bhishma’s prime years as a warrior start during the Vichitraveerya years and extend all the way to the births of the Kauravas. During this time, he oversees considerable expansion in the Kuru dynasty’s powers.

Not only does he display his fighting prowess more than once – he defeats an assortment of suitors at Amba’s swayamvara; and then he defeats Parashurama in a single battle – he also proves to be a capable diplomat, forging alliances with Madra, Kunti and Gandhara.

If this version of Bhishma were to fight with Arjuna at his best (at the end of the Virata Parva), and if we disallow divine weapons from either warrior, then the fight between them will likely be even.

But given the fact that Bhishma – even as a hundred year old man – was able to withstand Arjuna’s skill despite the presence of Krishna and the indestructible chariot, we may be forgiven for thinking that Bhishma will be skilful enough to defeat Arjuna.

Over all, if they fight each other a hundred times, Bhishma will probably win seventy of them.

Of course, if we put the divine weapons back on the table, and if we allow free use of them, then there is no question that Arjuna will win all hundred times.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!