A commonly asked question about the Mahabharata is: How old was Bhishma during the Kurukshetra war?
Bhishma is 101 years old during the events of the Mahabharata war. Bhishma is the longest-living character of the Mahabharata, and can be cited as the one man who has the most impact on all the important events of the epic. The story of the Mahabharata can actually be viewed as the life and times of Bhishma.
Read on to unearth a timeline of the whole story starting with Bhishma’s birth and ending with the death of the Pandavas.
(For answers to all Bhishma-related questions, see Bhishma: 14 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Before Bhishma and After Bhishma
The Mahabharata is a long story, spanning four generations of the Kuru kingdom’s legacy. It consists of short snatches of dramatic action punctuated by long stretches of time in which – supposedly – nothing happens.
Often, there is much confusion about the relative ages of different characters at various points of the epic.
In order to remove confusion with this regard, let us map out the entire story as it is documented, and then make clarifications as we see fit in order to make it more believable.
(Suggested: How did Bhishma get his name?)
Let us consider the birth of Bhishma as Year Zero.
To be sure, the story begins much before the birth of Bhishma and extends way past his death, but since he is present throughout the story, it is the most convenient way of measuring the Mahabharata timeline.
The short period of time covered by the tale outside of Bhishma’s life can be termed Before Bhishma and After Bhishma respectively. So here goes.
(Please note that certain assumptions will need to be made in the construction of this timeline. I will state these as and when I think it is necessary to do so.)
(Suggested: How was Bhishma born?)
Timeline of the Mahabharata
Year 0: Bhishma is born to Ganga and Shantanu. Shantanu catches Ganga trying to murder Bhishma, and discovers that she is a river goddess.
Ganga reveals to her husband the nature of the curse that brought her down to Earth from Heaven, and proceeds to take Bhishma with her.
(Please note that if we’re being technical, we should call him Devavrata, his given name. But I am using Bhishma to avoid confusion.)
Year 16: Bhishma returns to Shantanu. Becomes the heir-apparent to the throne of Hastinapur. Shantanu meets Satyavati / Matsyagandhi.
Bhishma takes the vow of celibacy to reassure Satyavati that her sons would become kings. Shantanu marries Satyavati.
(Suggested: How was Bhishma so powerful?)
Year 17: Chitrangada is born.
Year 18: Vichitraveerya is born. Shantanu dies.
Year 28: Chitrangada is crowned king at the age of eleven. Bhishma rules Hastinapur on behalf of his step brother.
Year 30: At the age of thirteen, Chitrangada accepts a challenge to battle a Gandharva of the same name, and dies. Vichitraveerya ascends the throne. He is twelve.
Year 34: Bhishma decides that it is time for Vichitraveerya to marry and have children. He goes to the groom-choosing ceremony of Kasi and abducts Amba, Ambika and Ambalika.
The princesses can be thought to be fifteen, fourteen and thirteen respectively. Amba leaves Hastinapur with the blessings of Bhishma, and sets about on her own adventure. We will reconnect with her on a parallel timeline in a later chapter.
(Suggested: Why did Bhishma not marry?)
Year 35: Vichitraveerya dies childless. Vyasa is invited to impregnate Ambika. The process is successful.
Year 36: Dhritarashtra is born. Vyasa impregnates Ambalika.
Year 37: Pandu is born. Vyasa impregnates an unnamed waiting woman.
Year 38: Vidura is born.
Year 48: At the age of eleven, Pandu is made the heir-apparent to the throne of Hastinapur. At this stage, Dhritarashtra is twelve years old, and has been passed up for kingship.
Year 53: Pandu returns from a successful conquest of Aryavarta. Retires into the forest with his two wives, after giving the kingdom over to Dhritarashtra.
(Suggested: How was Bhishma related to the Pandavas?)
Year 54: Pandu attracts the curse of Kindama and becomes unable to have sex. He sends back the vast retinue of servants, and goes to Bhrigu’s hermitage in the Gandhamadana mountains. Gandhari gets pregnant.
Year 55: Yudhishthir is born to Kunti. Gandhari beats her stomach and delivers a grotesque mass of flesh. Vyasa arrives, tears off a hundred and one pieces from the ball of tissue, and places them in a hundred and one pots.
Year 56: Bhimasena is born to Kunti. The hundred and one pots deliver babies, one after the other. The first of these is Duryodhana. The last of them is Dusshala.
Year 57: Arjuna is born.
Year 58: Nakula and Sahadeva are born.
Year 60: Pandu finds himself unable to resist Madri’s charms, and succumbs to the curse. Madri burns herself on the funeral pyre.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 6: Pandu Dies.)
At this point, the Pandavas are five, four, three and two years old respectively. The Kauravas are all between the ages of three and four. Kunti returns to Hastinapur along with Pandu and Madri’s remains.
Year 65: Drona arrives at Hastinapur and becomes teacher to the Kuru princes. Yudhishthir, the eldest Pandava, is ten. Drona’s age at this point, already the father of Ashwatthama, would be around thirty five.
Drona is given his Guru Dakshina: the kingdom of North Panchala conquered, and its king Drupada captured.
Year 71: The conspiracy of Varanavata is hatched. The house of wax burns. Yudhishthir is sixteen. The Pandavas escape through a tunnel into the forest.
Bhima marries, fathers Ghatotkacha through Hidimbi. Ghatotkacha grows into a youth immediately. The Pandavas move to Ekachakrapura. Bakasura is killed.
Year 72: The Pandavas arrive in Panchala. Arjuna wins Draupadi at her groom-choosing. Yudhishthir is seventeen, so Arjuna is fifteen. Draupadi is probably fourteen or thirteen.
Draupadi marries all five brothers on the advice of Vyasa. The Pandavas return to Hastinapur. Krishna enters the story, at Draupadi’s swayamvara.
(Suggested: Why did Draupadi Marry Five Pandavas?)
He follows the Pandavas back to their hut in Panchala and pays his respects to Kunti. Krishna’s age at this point? Probably in his early twenties. Let’s say twenty.
(By this time he had already killed Kamsa and fled from Jarasandha. Even if we assume that Dwaraka has just been established, he will need to be at least that old for all that water to have flowed under the bridge.)
Year 73: Indraprastha is established. Arjuna leaves on his twelve-year exile.
Year 85: Arjuna returns to Indraprastha. The Pandavas set out on their expedition to conquer the world on behalf of their elder brother. Jarasandha is killed by Bhimasena. Preparations for the Rajasuya begin.
Year 86: The forest of Khandava is destroyed. The palace of illusions is built by Maya. Yudhishthir performs the Rajasuya. Shishupala is killed by Krishna.
Duryodhana is smitten by envy, and returns to Hastinapur under a cloud of anger against the Pandavas. A plan is hatched to invite Yudhishthir to a game of dice.
The Pandavas lose everything. Draupadi is disrobed. The Pandavas leave for a twelve-year exile, with a thirteenth year of incognito.
(Suggested: What Happens during Draupadi’s Disrobing?)
Year 99: The Pandavas begin their year of incognito in the kingdom of Matsya, ruled by Virata. Yudhishthir is forty four years old.
Arjuna, disguised as Brihannala, protects Virata’s cattle single-handedly against a combined fighting force that includes Bhishma, Drona, Kripa, Karna and Duryodhana.
Year 100: The Pandavas return to Hastinapur and ask for their kingdom back. Krishna performs the role of emissary in vain. Battle lines are drawn.
The Panchalas assemble a seven-akshauhini army, to fight the eleven akshauhinis that pledge their allegiance to Duryodhana.
Year 101: The Kurukshetra war begins. It lasts eighteen fateful days. Everyone dies. The only survivors of the war are Krishna, Satyaki, Kritavarma, the five Pandavas, Ashwatthama and Kripacharya. Yudhishthir is forty six.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 59: Krishna and the Yadavas Die.)
Vyasa advises the Pandavas to renounce their kingdom and make for their final journey.
Year 138: The Pandavas crown Parikshit, the son of Abhimanyu, the king of Hastinapur. Since Parikshit is said to be present in Uttara’s womb toward the end of the Kurukshetra war, we can surmise that he is thirty seven years old now.
The Pandavas set out to find Mount Sumeru, in the hope that they can scale it in their mortal bodies.
Year 140: They reach the foothills of Sumeru. Yudhishthir is the only one among the six who succeeds in reaching the top. He ascends heaven in his mortal body. He is eighty five years old.
Please note that this is only a likely timeline. One can tinker with some assumptions and come up with numbers that are different.
For instance, if you assume that Ganga took Bhishma away not for sixteen years but for twelve (or for eleven, or for twenty), your answers will vary.
There are plenty of interludes in the story where the text does not give us explicit information about the ages of the characters. Here are some of them:
(Suggested: Was Bhishma a virgin?)
- How long after Vichitraveerya’s birth did Shantanu die?
- How old was Pandu when he was crowned king of Hastinapur? Sixteen? Or older? Or younger? I have assumed eleven to be the ‘coronation age’ and sixteen to be the ‘kingmaking’ age.
- How many years before Kunti’s marriage to Pandu did she abandon Karna? I have assumed three years – because if Kunti got married at sixteen, the Karna episode could have happened only after she hit puberty.
- How long after the establishment of Indraprastha does Arjuna leave for his exile? I have assumed both these events happen in the same year.
And so on. As it stands, though, this timeline captures most of the main events that happen during the Mahabharata, and it arrives at a nice symmetrical figure for the Kurukshetra war occurring in Year 101.
If you want to build your own timeline that differs from this one, by all means do so. But this is quite serviceable.
How can Bhishma fight so well despite being 101?
A rationalist would scoff at the suggestion that a man who is 100+ has not only fought in the Mahabharata war but also served as commander of his army for the first ten days.
In fact, he outlives all the warriors and dies only after he has given Yudhishthir the benefit of all his wisdom.
If we’re looking for a realistic and logical answer, the only possibility is that some of the periods that have been quoted in the story have been stretched for dramatic value.
For instance, one may argue that Arjuna’s ‘twelve-year-exile’ was perhaps only four or five years long – just long enough to allow:
(a) Draupadi to have four children with the rest of the Pandavas, and (b) Arjuna to have children with Ulupi, Chitrangada and Subhadra.
(Suggested: Why did Arjuna marry Chitrangada?)
Other places where we may have overestimated time:
- Perhaps princes were crowned kings at ages lower than sixteen – perhaps at eleven or twelve?
- Perhaps princesses were married off at ages lower than sixteen – perhaps at the onset of puberty? This would mean that Kunti’s marriage occurred right after she abandoned Karna.
- Perhaps the exile of the Pandavas itself was not twelve years long. Could it have been maybe five or six?
Of course, on the other side we have the literary arguments. Three reasons can be submitted as to how he manages to remain strong into his hundreds.
- He is the son of Ganga. He is a demi-god. He lives during his formative years in heaven. It is entirely likely that he was given the nectar of immortality during this time. It may have contributed to his unflagging vitality.
- He has the boon of Shantanu that allows him to choose the moment of his death.
- His oath to remain celibate may have given him deep ascetic powers. A person who takes a lifelong vow of remaining a Brahmachari is thought to receive many magical blessings related to youth and beauty.
These three reasons combined are adequate to explain how Bhishma fought so well in the Mahabharata war despite being so old.
(Suggested: Could Bhishma defeat Arjuna?)
- Bhishma is the one character in the Mahabharata who is present at all important events. He witnesses it all.
- By some reasonable estimates, Bhishma is 101 years old as the Mahabharata war kicks off.
- The death of the Pandavas – and the end of the Mahabharata story – occurs in the 140th year after Bhishma’s birth.
- The entire story can be considered, therefore, as one that spans a hundred and forty years of Kuru history.
If you liked this post, you may find this interesting also: Bhishma: 14 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.