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: 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.
Read on to discover more about how Bhishma died in the Mahabharata.
(For answers to all Bhishma-related questions, see Bhishma: 14 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Despite the many insults the Kauravas heap upon the Pandavas during the course of their lives, Arjuna still finds himself ambivalent to the idea of fighting his kinsmen on the eve of the war.
His hesitation is not at having to face the Kauravas – he has done that before, and is glad to do so now – but about picking up arms against the three Kuru elders: Bhishma, his grandfather; Drona, his preceptor; and Kripa, his mentor.
When he sees all these men arrayed in front of him in their battle armour, Arjuna loses all will to fight and throws his weapons away. Krishna then steps in and delivers a masterfully persuasive lecture – which we today call the Bhagavad Gita.
This does the job – it gets Arjuna to pick up his Gandiva and march into battle – but over the first ten days of the war, the third Pandava still gets afflicted by the occasional moment of reluctance.
These bouts are more pronounced when he is required to fight Bhishma. And much to Krishna’s chagrin, Bhishma is the commander of the Kuru forces, with no peer on the Pandava side.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 39: The Bhagavad Gita.)
Bhishma, on the other hand, has come into the battle with a clear strategy: he will not fight or directly engage with any of the Pandavas, but he will exert his fullest powers toward decimating the Panchalas and Somakas.
In other words, he will strip the Pandavas of all of their allies and fighting resources – so that they will be forced to return to the negotiating table with the Kuru establishment.
Since the Panchala-Somaka army is significantly smaller (eleven akshauhinis to seven), the Kauravas just have to maintain pressure while Bhishma rages on. And the battle will slowly swing in their favour.
From the Pandava point of view, the only way to counter this strategy is to have Arjuna engage with Bhishma as much as possible. Arjuna is the only warrior on their side capable of fighting at Bhishma’s level.
The best case scenario, of course, is that Arjuna stops Bhishma by either killing crippling him. But even if he keeps Bhishma locked in a prolonged battle, that will save the destruction of thousands of regular fighting forces.
But Arjuna is plagued by this malaise that forces him to fight well below his capabilities whenever he faces Bhishma. This makes Krishna angry, and on two occasions, he leaps off his chariot and threatens to attack Bhishma himself with the Sudarshana Chakra.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 41: Krishna Almost Fights.)
‘How can we kill you?’
At the end of the ninth day, Krishna tells Yudhishthir that this cannot go on. ‘If he fights like this for much longer, you will be left without an army, O Son of Dharma,’ says Krishna. ‘We have to find a way to stop him.’
The five Pandavas and Krishna then go that very night to Bhishma’s tent – we must assume here that none of the Kaurava soldiers or leaders saw them on their visit – and ask him, ‘How can we kill you?’
Bhishma is magnanimous enough to tell them his secret weakness, something to which he has alluded archly in the past. He says, ‘If I am faced with someone who is a woman or who has once been a woman, I will not fight him.’
That is enough for the Pandavas; they go back to their camp and begin to strategize about how to use Shikhandi as the central point of their fighting formation the next day.
Shikhandi is the only man in the Pandava army who has once been a woman and has since been transformed into a man. If he is brought to face Bhishma, Krishna reasons, the grandsire will have no choice but to refrain from fighting.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 38: Amba and Shikhandi.)
Shikhandi as Shield
On the tenth day, therefore, it is Shikhandi who finds himself in the middle of the Pandava army’s array. Bhima and Arjuna – the two most powerful warriors in the side – guard the two wheels of Shikhandi’s chariot.
Shikhandi has a single-point goal for this day: engage with Bhishma and shadow him around the battlefield. Keep shooting arrows at him.
Arjuna’s job is to protect Shikhandi from the rest of the Kuru soldiers who will undoubtedly leap to Bhishma’s defence. Thus, Shikhandi will be left free to attack Bhishma, secure in the knowledge that he is well-defended.
This arrangement goes on for a good part of the day, but as afternoon approaches, it becomes clear to Krishna that Shikhandi’s arrows are not strong enough even to pierce Bhishma’s armour.
Even with drawing all of Shikhandi’s fire without shooting back at him, Bhishma continues to slaughter thousands of soldiers.
Krishna then tells Arjuna that it is time for him to begin shooting at Bhishma too, while taking cover behind Shikhandi. ‘Leave the matter of defending the Panchala prince to your brothers, Partha,’ says Krishna. ‘You attack Bhishma.’
Fall of Bhishma
Once this switch happens, Bhishma begins to slow down. Arjuna’s arrows manage to pierce his armour, and once some chinks are found, Shikhandi’s arrows also become more effective on their own.
Bhishma notices this, and it takes him a while to realize that Arjuna is shooting at him from behind Shikhandi. He smiles to himself, and then proclaims to the world: ‘If I am being defeated, it is by Arjuna’s arrows, not by Shikhandi’s!’
He continues to fight, though, and the other Kuru leaders desperately try to defend him from Arjuna. But the other Pandava heroes – Dhrishtadyumna, Satyaki, Bhima, Nakula and so on – do a good job of keeping them busy, thus leaving Arjuna with time to pepper Bhishma with arrows.
Arjuna is still his reluctant self, and is only fighting half-heartedly, but in this arrangement, a half-hearted effort is enough to disable and cripple Bhishma.
Soon, arrows are sticking out of Bhishma’s body in all directions. His charioteer is killed. He undertakes to fight from the ground, but it is only a short while before he falls over – and his arrows prop his body up in the air.
He stays like that on his ‘bed of arrows’ until the end of the war, watching his beloved Kuru dynasty destroy itself.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 42: Bhishma Falls.)
Death of Bhishma
At the fall of Bhishma, the fighting stops for the day, and all the heroes assembled on the battlefield come to pay their respects. During the night, the Kauravas and Pandavas put aside their weapons and sit together to talk civilly.
Bhishma tries one last time to persuade Duryodhana to stop the war, but the advice falls on deaf ears.
Karna visits Bhishma privately, after everyone else has gone home. Bhishma mends their fractured relationship by apologizing to the son of Radha, and proclaims him an atiratha beyond doubt.
But the war rages on, and at the end of the eighteenth day, the entire Kuru army has been destroyed. But Bhishma remains alive.
Yudhishthir and the Pandavas visit him to pay their respects. (It is unclear why, at this point, they do not attempt to remove his arrows and nurse him back to health.) Bhishma has a long conversation with Yudhishthir at this point, encompassing different topics such as politics, administration, ethics and spirituality.
Then, after the conclusion of this talk, Bhishma decides that the time has come for him to die.
He invokes the boon that he had once received from his father Shantanu – allowing him to choose the moment of his death – and welcomes his last breath.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- Bhishma: 14 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Krishna: 36 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered