How did Arjuna kill Bhishma?

How did Arjuna kill Bhishma - Featured Post - Picture of an archer shooting an arrow. Representing Arjuna

Arjuna is the most powerful warrior in the Mahabharata universe. He is the third of the Pandavas in order of seniority, born after Yudhishthir and Bhimasena.

He is the last of Kunti’s children. After his birth, Kunti decides that she will summon no more gods and bear no more sons. Nakula and Sahadeva, the fourth and fifth of the Pandavas respectively, are born to Madri, Pandu’s second wife.

In this post, we will answer the question: How did Arjuna kill Bhishma?

Arjuna defeats Bhishma by shooting at him from behind Shikhandi. Bhishma has a moral scruple against fighting Shikhandi because the Panchala prince was born a woman. Knowing this, on the tenth day of the war, the Pandavas place Shikhandi is at the forefront facing Bhishma. Bhishma falls to Arjuna’s arrows and dies after the war is finished.

Read on to discover more about how Arjuna killed Bhishma.

(For answers to all Arjuna-related questions, see Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

Technicalities First

Arjuna does not kill Bhishma directly. He injures him to such an extent that Bhishma can no longer take part in the war.

Bhishma fights the war with the sole purpose of killing all of the Panchala army so that the Pandavas will be left with nothing with which to fight. He hopes that this will force the Pandavas and Kauravas to come to an agreement.

But Krishna believes that this will only lead to another situation in which Duryodhana may trick the Pandavas. So he tells Arjuna to remove Bhishma from the battlefield so that the war can proceed to its bitter end.

Bhishma has a boon – given him by his father Shantanu – that he can choose the moment of his death. Though he falls to Arjuna’s arrows on the tenth day, he remains alive through to the very end of the war.

After the Pandava declare themselves victors, and after Yudhishthir becomes king, Bhishma gives his grandson a long lecture on various topics – such as morality, politics, governance and so on.

Only after this conversation has finished does Bhishma choose to die.

It may not be right, therefore, to say that Arjuna killed Bhishma. It is more accurate to say that Arjuna removed Bhishma from the battle, and then Bhishma chose a suitable time to die after the war had ended.

Bhishma’s Condition

Having made that clear, let us look at Bhishma’s one weakness when it comes to fighting: he does not wish to be challenged by a woman, or a man who was once a woman.

Why this is so is unclear. Of course, it is not at all regular for women to take up arms in the Mahabharata universe. But if the kingdoms of the world had all known for years that Bhishma does not fight a woman, why did any of them not use the services of a female spy or soldier to take his life?

In any case, Bhishma reveals this self-imposed restriction at the beginning of the war. And as luck would have it, the Panchala army has one warrior who was once a woman. His name is Shikhandi, and he is the son of Drupada.

It so happens that Shikhandi is the reincarnated form of Amba, that princess of Kosala who was once won by Bhishma for Vichitraveerya. Amba dies with a desperate wish for revenge for Bhishma on her lips.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 38: Amba and Shikhandi.)

The Pandavas ask Bhishma

On the night of the ninth day of battle, the Pandavas – along with Krishna – go to Bhishma’s tent and ask him how they can kill him. And Bhishma replies, ‘If I am challenged by Shikhandi, I will not fight.’

The Pandavas therefore arrange their strategy on the tenth day such that Shikhandi is in the center, facing Bhishma squarely. Protecting one wheel of Shikhandi’s chariot is Arjuna, and at the other wheel stands Bhimasena.

In short, the single aim of the Pandavas on the tenth day of the war is to ensure that Bhishma is defeated.

Throughout the day, Shikhandi follows Bhishma wherever he goes. Bhishma takes all of Shikhandi’s arrows on his body, choosing not to fight against him or to defend himself.

Also, Arjuna fights from behind Shikhandi’s chariot wheel and shoots several arrows at Bhishma. Bhishma recognises that these arrows belong to Arjuna, but he cannot shoot back at his grandson because Shikhandi is acting as a shield.

Bhishma continues to fight against other warriors on the Pandava side, but the relentless pressure from Arjuna and Shikhandi takes its toll. Eventually, he steps off his chariot and falls to the ground.

There are so many arrows sticking out of his body at this point that when he topples over, he becomes suspended in mid air on a ‘bed of arrows’.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 42: Bhishma Falls.)

One Final Plea

After falling on top of his arrows, Bhishma makes one final plea to the two parties to set aside their weapons and to come together to resolve their differences in peace.

But neither army agrees to this. Both sets of grandchildren pay their respects to Bhishma, and on the night of the tenth day, they even set aside their weapons and reminisce fondly of old times.

Arjuna gives Bhishma a pillow for his head – by shooting three arrows into the ground and propping up the old man’s head on them. Then he shoots another arrow into the ground to bring out a stream of water with which Bhishma can quench his thirst.

Bhishma’s most desperate wish, though – that the Kuru children will reunite at his fall – remains unfulfilled.

Karna also visits Bhishma during the night, after all the other visitors have gone back to their camps. Bhishma resolves his differences with the king of Anga, and also tries to get him to pull Duryodhana out of the war. This request also falls on deaf ears.

Bhishma is thus consigned to a fate in which he is forced to watch his grandchildren kill one another to bring about the fall of the dynasty that he took so much trouble to build.

(Suggested: 12 Mahabharata Stories From the Bhishma Parva.)

Arjuna’s Punishment

This deception by Arjuna – and it is his deception, though he was urged by Krishna – draws the ire of Ganga, Bhishma’s mother. She decrees that Arjuna will have to pay for this by giving up his life.

Fortunately, Ulupi – one of Arjuna’s wives – overhears this conversation because she is a Naga princess and the Nagas live underwater.

After the war is finished, during Yudhishthir’s Ashwamedha, Arjuna follows the sacrificial horse into Manipura, the kingdom ruled by Babruvahana, his son by Chitrangada.

Arjuna challenges his son to a duel – as per the norms of the Ashwamedha’s wandering horse – and as Babruvahana weighs up his options, Ulupi appears and encourages him to fight.

Arjuna ends up dying at the hands of Babruvahana, but Ulupi revives him and tells him all about the curse of Ganga.

‘Fall of Dharma’

Bhishma’s fall also represents, in some respects, the beginning of the degeneration of ethics in the Mahabharata war.

The war begins on Day 1 as a ‘Dharma Yuddha’. All the rules of the war are followed relatively properly during the ten days that Bhishma fights as the commander of the Kaurava army.

The biggest breach in moral conduct during the first ten days is made by Bhishma himself, when he decides to obliterate the Pandava army instead of fighting against the rathas and atirathas.

It is considered beyond the pale for a chariot-warrior to fight against foot soldiers using unearthly weapons. Bhishma begins to do this. Krishna’s response to it is to find a way to remove Bhishma from battle.

Arjuna’s tactic to use Shikhandi as a shield, though, is the first overtly unrighteous act of the war. From this point on, the participants begin to shed their moral avatars and begin to don increasingly demonic forms.

(Suggested: 12 Mahabharata Stories from the Sauptika Parva.)

Bhishma’s death is used by the Kauravas as an excuse to push the boundaries under Drona’s leadership. This leads directly to Abhimanyu’s death, which is then used by the Pandavas as an excuse to degrade themselves.

By the end of the eighteenth day, the war has reached a point where Ashwatthama thinks nothing of killing his enemies in their sleep – which is considered the lowest of low forms of warrior behaviour.

And it all starts with the fall of Bhishma on Day 10, at the hands of Arjuna.

Further Reading

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