Did Shikhandi kill Bhishma?

Shikhandi is one of the minor but significant characters in the Mahabharata. He is the older brother of Dhrishtadyumna and Draupadi. He is the son of Drupada, the king of Panchala in the years leading up to the Kurukshetra war.

However, Shikhandi is born as a girl. Shiva asks Drupada to raise her as a boy, and that she will transform into a man when the time is right.

In this post, we will answer the question: Did Shikhandi kill Bhishma?

Bhishma cannot be killed by anyone because he can summon Death at will. The most one can accomplish is to push him into an irreversible state of pain and suffering – which Shikhandi does. But Shikhandi could not have defeated Bhishma without Arjuna. This fact is acknowledged by both Bhishma and Ganga.

(For a comprehensive guide on Amba, see Shikhandi: Your Complete Guide to the Mahabharata Hero.)

Bhishma’s Boon from Shantanu

As reward for Bhishma’s sacrifice as a young man to allow Satyavati to enter the Kuru house as queen, Shantanu gives his son a boon. And the boon is this: Bhishma will not die until he welcomes Death to come and take him.

Now as boons go, this is the big one. Bhishma is effectively immortal.

One caveat that is worth noting is that Bhishma is not immune to aging as a result of this boon. Nor is he immune to pain. So as long as he is able to endure the pain and suffering of bodily decay, Bhishma can choose to remain alive for as long as he wants.

(We are not told how Shantanu became powerful enough to grant such a tremendous magical gift to his son. We’re left to speculate, therefore, that the Kuru king has amassed plenty of spiritual energy himself, by virtue of his good deeds.)

In any case, what this means is that no one can kill Bhishma without his consent. You could wear him down to within an inch of his life and he could still hold on to life indefinitely.

Therefore, if it is your job – or destiny – to kill Bhishma, the best you can hope for really is to inflict enough pain and injury to his body, and hope that they cause him enough despair to call upon Death.

On the Bed of Arrows

Shikhandi, fighting with Arjuna, do exactly this with Bhishma on the tenth day. The approach the Pandavas employ is not exactly in keeping with the rules of ethical fighting, but they succeed in wounding Bhishma enough to eliminate him from the battlefield.

After the tenth day, Bhishma’s body is pierced all over with arrows. He is lying impaled upon them. Every moment, he is ridden with pain and suffering.

This is the farthest anyone can push Bhishma, given the boon that he possesses.

And Shikhandi is the warrior responsible for pushing Bhishma into this state. For all practical purposes, therefore, one can say that Shikhandi has played an important role in killing Bhishma.

Yes, Bhishma technically does not die until after the war is finished, until after Shikhandi himself has died. But Shikhandi knows that he has fulfilled his life’s purpose to the fullest extent possible under the circumstances.

Without Shikhandi?

But even if we allow that Bhishma was practically killed on the tenth day of the war, we must still answer the question of whether it was Shikhandi who did it.

Or phrased a better way: was Shikhandi or Arjuna more responsible for Bhishma’s fall?

This is a difficult point to ponder over, because without Shikhandi shielding him, Arjuna would not have succeeded in killing Bhishma on this day.

Why? Because Bhishma would have defended himself gamely against Arjuna, and Arjuna would not have pushed himself to the extent needed to subjugate Bhishma.

In fact, for the first ten days of the war, the Bhishma-Arjuna challenges end exactly in the same way: with Bhishma successfully defending himself against Arjuna, and Arjuna hesitating to go that extra mile.

So without Shikhandi, Bhishma would not have fallen. That’s a fact.

But the reverse is true as well.

Without Arjuna?

Without Arjuna shooting arrows at Bhishma from behind him, Shikhandi would not succeeded in bringing down Bhishma on his own either.

Why? Because Shikhandi’s arrows – by themselves – are not powerful enough to inflict enough damage on Bhishma. This is true even if Bhishma is not actively defending himself against Shikhandi, and is allowing all of Shikhandi’s arrows to fall upon him.

There simply is not enough force behind Shikhandi’s skill to pierce Bhishma’s armour.

And Shikhandi does not seem to be skilful enough to aim and shoot at Bhishma where he is unprotected by armour.

(As an example, Arjuna demonstrates this skill on the fourteenth day of the war by shooting arrows aimed at Duryodhana’s fingernails, which causes the latter to flee.)

What this means is that theoretically, Shikhandi might have kept shooting arrow after arrow at Bhishma indefinitely without once threatening to bruise his enemy.

It is only after Arjuna begins to help out Shikhandi by adding in some of his more potent arrows to the mix that Bhishma begins to waver.

So without Arjuna’s help, Shikhandi would have failed to kill Bhishma too.

Who killed Bhishma, really?

It’s an extremely close-run thing between Arjuna and Shikhandi. Shikhandi is apt to say that it is he who has killed Bhishma, because that is important to his entire life’s purpose.

In the same way, Dhrishtadyumna would insist that it is he who killed Drona, even though he only beheaded the man when he was meditating, after he had given up his arms.

But in the real analysis? Bhishma believes it is Arjuna and not Shikhandi’s arrows that are hurting him. He actually says this out loud as he is falling. ‘It is Arjuna that is killing me, not Shikhandi!’

And even Ganga, the mother of Bhishma, holds Arjuna responsible for the death of Bhishma. In fact, she places a curse on Arjuna that is not lifted until Babruvahana kills Arjuna during the Ashwamedha Parva.

On the other hand, almost no one truly believes that it was Shikhandi who killed Bhishma.

This is exactly how the Dhrishtadyumna-Drona situation pans out. Yudhishthir is the person the gods hold responsible for Drona’s death. Yudhishthir is even punished with a short stint in hell for this crime.

So if we have to take a vote on the matter, we might say the deed was done with 60% contribution from Arjuna and 40% from Shikhandi.

Shikhandi’s Destiny

Ironically, both of Drupada’s sons – Dhrishtadyumna and Shikhandi – were begotten with tall claims about how they will kill Drona and Bhishma respectively.

Drupada’s most fervent wish for his two sons is that they should kill the two Kuru stalwarts. This is not an unreasonable wish; only if Drona and Bhishma are killed can Panchala have any hope for winning battles against Kuru.

How the prophecies come true, though, is interesting.

In both cases, the Panchala princes play an empty and unfulfilling role in achieving their purposes. In Dhrishtadyumna’s case, he is reduced to hacking at a lifeless, meditating man’s head and claiming victory.

In Shikhandi’s case, he is forced to acknowledge that Bhishma is too strong for him to kill even when he is not defending himself against Shikhandi’s arrows. In short, Shikhandi cannot kill Bhishma even if he has a free, unobstructed path to him for an entire day.

So he reduced to being Arjuna’s shield in the battle against Bhishma. His role is just to ensure that Bhishma does not shoot back at Arjuna.

Shikhandi and Dhrishtadyumna, therefore, fulfil their respective destinies in a literal sense, but do so in ways that leave both men diminished – not just as warriors but also as men.

Further Reading

If you found this post interesting, you will like Mahabharata Parva 64: The Ambopakhyana Parva