How Did Bhishma Get His Name?

How did Bhishma get his name - Featured Image - Abstract pattern of waves representing Ganga

Bhishma is the grandfather of the Pandavas and Kauravas in the Mahabharata. For much of the story, he is known and called only by this name, so it is often overlooked that this is in fact not his birth name. It is a title given to him because of an act of will that he undertakes when he is a youth of sixteen.

So how did Bhishma get his name?

The word ‘Bhishma’ means ‘terrible’. When he is a young man, in order to facilitate the marriage of his father, King Shantanu, to a fisherman’s daughter named Satyavati, he takes the oath of lifelong celibacy to ensure that there would be no rivals to Satyavati’s children. When he makes this pledge, all celestial beings rain flowers down on him, and give him the title of ‘Bhishma’.

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

Read on to learn more about the circumstances surrounding Bhishma’s terrible pledge, the consequences it brings to the Kuru clan, and more.

What is Bhishma’s birth name?

It is Devavrata. He is born to King Shantanu (of the Kuru line) and Ganga, the personified form of the holy river that flows in Heaven. For this reason he is also called Shantanava (the son of Shantanu) and Gangeya (the son of Ganga).

He is the incarnation of Prabhasa, the elemental god of dawn. Prabhasa sins by stealing Nandini, the cow of Vasishtha, and earns a curse that he will spend a long life on Earth as a human being. Because Prabhasa’s reason for stealing Nandini was to impress his wife, Vasishtha adds a clause that during Prabhasa’s life on Earth, he will also crave and not ever know the pleasure of a woman’s company.

His early childhood happens on the foothills of Mount Meru with his mother Ganga. He is taught by sages Vasishtha and Parashurama.

When he comes of age, Ganga returns him to Shantanu in order that he can become king at the right time. Shantanu is overjoyed to have his son back, and almost immediately he performs Devavrata’s coronation as heir-apparent to the throne.

Why does Bhishma take the oath of celibacy?

On a regular hunting expedition, Shantanu happens to meet a young woman on the banks of the Yamuna whose name is Matsyagandhi (‘she who smells like fish’). She is the daughter of a chief of a fishing settlement, and a short while back she had had an encounter with Sage Parashara, with whom she has a son named Dwaipayana.

(Dwaipayana later compiles and summarizes the Vedas and earns the name of Vyasa.)

Sage Parashara also gives this young lady the boon of carrying an irresistibly sweet smell about her person which – people say – one can detect from a yojana away. Hence also the name Yojanagandhi.

In any case, Shantanu is smitten by this woman, and wishes to marry her. But the father of the maiden refuses to give her hand to the king, saying, ‘Your throne has already been given to your son. What prospects will my daughter have if she marries you?’

When Devavrata comes to know of the matter, he goes to meet Matsyagandhi’s father on his own, and promises to give up the throne in favour of Matsyagandhi’s future children.

In order to remove all possible doubt that he will ever have children that may one day compete with Matsyagandhi’s, he takes the oath that he will never marry. He will also never partake of sexual pleasure with a woman to completely nullify the risk that he may father illegitimate children with lower-born women who may then grow up with ambitions to become kings.

What are the consequences of this oath?

While the conditions of the oath are well-thought-out for the time it is made, it becomes a millstone around Bhishma’s neck over the future course of the story.

Satyavati (Matsyagandhi’s name as queen of Shantanu) gives birth to two children, Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya. The first dies as a young man during a battle with a Gandharva. The second dies after getting married to two princesses from Kosala – Ambika and Ambalika.

(In reality, Bhishma wins three princesses from Kosala for Vichitraveerya, but Amba, the eldest, begs leave to marry another man of her own choice. That journey leads her to all sorts of interesting places, which we will cover another time.)

With Ambika and Ambalika widowed before getting pregnant, Satyavati asks Bhishma to marry the two princesses and father sons with them. This is the logical solution: after all, by this time Shantanu is also dead so there is no way Satyavati is going to have more children.

But Bhishma refuses to go back on his word. He says, ‘When I took the oath of lifelong celibacy, I meant it to be lifelong, Mother.’

Because of this, Satyavati is forced to summon her other son, Dwaipayana, to father children with Ambika and Ambalika. These are Pandu and Dhritarashtra. In addition, Dwaipayana also fathers a son through a Sudra waiting woman in the palace who grows up to become Vidura.

What if Bhishma had broken his oath at Shantanu’s death?

With the passing of Shantanu, the original reason for Devavrata’s oath of celibacy became null and void. In theory, Satyavati could still bring forth sons with another man through the practice of niyoga, but given that she has no intention to do so, Bhishma could have broken his vow and fathered children with Ambika and Ambalika.

What would the course of history be like if he had done that?

Pandu and Dhritarashtra would not exist. Neither would Vidura. The Mahabharata as we know it would not have happened this way.

Sure, the sons of Ambika and Ambalika would probably still have fought one another for the kingdom. But Hastinapur would have a stable king in Bhishma. And he would have seen to it that all divisions and quarrels are taken care of amicably.

Why does Bhishma not break his oath?

The ostensible reason is that he does not think it right to go back on one’s word having once given it. It is a matter of principle.

But there may also have been the thought at the back of his mind that he has to live up to all the divine approval that came his way during his oath-taking. All those flower-rains. Those celestial beings calling him ‘Bhishma’.

What will they call him now? At the very least the title will be taken away from him. He can no longer call himself Bhishma when the pledge is no longer active.

He may have worried that the world will snicker at his back, and that his word will no longer have value thereafter. ‘Oh, Devavrata,’ the world may say, ‘that man who made a promise for life and then took it back in a few years? Right, we trust him!’

Whether these fears are warranted or not, we cannot tell. For all we know, the celestial beings and the world at large may have understood. Maybe they would have ridiculed him for a time and moved on – as ‘they’ do. But what is important here is that Bhishma must have thought this situation impossible to endure. So he chose not to risk it.

Finally, we should also remember that Bhishma could not have gone back on his word because Vasishtha’s curse requires him to be celibate throughout his life. In one sense, therefore, it is written into the pages of destiny that events would unfold this way.

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