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?
Bhishma is the eighth son born of the union between Shantanu, the king of Hastinapur, and Ganga the river goddess. He is the human incarnation of Prabhasa, the youngest of the eight Vasus – who are celestial beings that regulate the elements. Owing to Vasishtha’s curse, Prabhasa alone is destined to live a long and abstinent life on Earth.
Read on to discover more about how Bhishma was born.
(For answers to all Bhishma-related questions, see Bhishma: 14 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
The Mahabharata begins with the love story of Shantanu, the king of Hastinapur, with Ganga, the great river goddess.
But the cause of this meeting between the king and his future queen is another tale, which happens high up in the heavens, a tale concerning two curses.
The first of these curses is placed on king Mahabhisha. He is known to be one of the few king-sages on Earth who has attained heaven in his mortal form.
On one occasion, Mahabhisha, while sitting in council with Brahma and some other gods, sees Ganga pass by, and though the rest of them lower their heads in respect, Mahabhisha looks upon her with desire.
Brahma, noticing this, places a curse on the king, saying, ‘You shall be born on Earth for looking at the pious Ganga with desire.’
Mahabhisha accepts the curse with good grace and asks Brahma when he will be released from it.
‘When your wrath is provoked,’ replies Brahma, ‘the curse will let you go and you will return to heaven.’
The Eight Vasus
Meanwhile, Ganga, who has seen Mahabhisha while passing by the gods’ council, begins to think of him as well. On her way back to her place amid the mountains, she meets the eight Vasus, looking rather dejected.
When asked the reason for their sadness, they tell her, ‘The sage Vasistha has seen it fit to curse us for no more than a tiny fault, O Ganga. He has decreed that the eight of us will descend to Earth in the form of men.’
‘What did you do, O Vasus, to provoke the anger of the sage thus?’
‘We shall tell you that story in due course, O Mother of all things,’ the Vasus reply. ‘But we wish to know whether you would be kind enough to bear us in your womb on Earth, for we are unwilling to enter the body of any ordinary human female.’
‘Who is going to be the father of you all?’
‘We are informed that unto the virtuous king Pratipa will be born a son by name Shantanu, who is himself Mahabhisha of our world, preparing to descend upon Earth to serve another curse – for what sin, we do not know. We think that he will make a suitable father for our human forms if you accede to become our mother.’
At the mention of Mahabhisha’s name, Ganga becomes excited at the thought of meeting him again on Earth.
This must be destiny indeed, she thinks, for how is it that events have transpired to place this opportunity at my feet? And with haste she agrees to carry the Vasus in her womb.
‘But remember, Lady Ganga,’ say the Vasus, ‘you must make certain that you kill the first seven of us within a few hours of our birth, by drowning us in your person so that we know no pain.
‘The eighth of us, though, you shall not kill, and he shall be reared as the son of Shantanu, and he might in the future become king to the land of Hastinapur. This is in accordance with Sage Vasishtha’s curse.’
Ganga then asks the Vasus again about Vasishtha’s curse, and the gods tell her the story.
It so happens that Prabhasa, the youngest and eighth of the Vasus – in a playful mood and encouraged by his wife – steals Nandini, the cow belonging to Vasishtha. When the sage comes to know of this, he summons the elementals to his hermitage and places upon them the curse that they will all take birth as men on Earth.
The Vasus then tell Vasishtha that it is Prabhasa alone that is the culprit, and that it is unfair that the rest of them suffer for his crime.
A relenting Vasishtha then amends the curse, and says that the first seven Vasus will not be required to spend all that long on Earth, whereas Prabhasa will live a long mortal life.
And he also adds: ‘Because you did this while blinded by lust for your woman, Prabhasa, you shall spend your life on Earth devoid of any woman’s intimate company.’
Ganga Marries Shantanu
After the two curses have been placed, it only remains for the players in question to take actions to bring them into fruition.
Mahabhisha descends to Earth and takes birth as the son of King Pratipa of Hasintapur. Ganga waits until he comes of age, and on a spring evening, meets him on the riverbank when he is out chasing a deer.
It is love at first sight between the two, and before long Shantanu has made the maiden (whose identity he does not know) his wife. Ganga places a condition for the marriage. She says that no matter what she does, Shantanu is disallowed from censuring her.
Blinded by desire, the king accepts. In due course of time, Ganga gives birth to their first son.
Shantanu is overjoyed, but to his horror, he learns that his wife has committed the horrible act of drowning the baby in the river. He is shocked but unable to question his wife.
This even repeats itself seven more times. Unbeknownst to Shantanu, Ganga is carrying out the terms of the Vasus’ curse, and is liberating them from their lives on earth.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 1: Ganga Marries Shantanu.)
Devavrata is born
By the time of the birth of their eighth child, Shantanu’s patience has worn thin. He takes matters into his own hands and ‘rescues’ his child – not knowing that Ganga does not have any intentions of killing this one.
‘Are you a witch or a demon?’ thunders Shantanu at Ganga, losing his temper. ‘I will not let you kill another of our sons.’
At this moment, Mahabhisha is delivered from his curse, and his essence leaves Shantanu’s body. Ganga also realizes that the time has come to leave Shantanu and follow Mahabhisha back to heaven.
She takes Devavrata with her. But before that, she tells Shantanu everything about herself and her story.
Shantanu is distraught at the turn of events, but he helplessly watches as his wife and son desert him.
Sixteen or so years later, when Shantanu is out hunting once again, he comes across a young man who is performing a near-divine feat of archery at the river. As he watches the boy, he is astonished to see the water take a human form, and turn into a woman he had once known.
‘King Shantanu, my lord,’ says Ganga. ‘I have brought you our son. Make him crown prince of your kingdom. May he bring you much fame and glory.’
Shantanu is overjoyed to get his son back. He takes him into the kingdom and loses no time in proclaiming him Hastinapur’s future king.
All this while, the boy carries the name of Devavrata. Shortly after his coronation, though, he takes a permanent vow of celibacy in order that Shantanu might marry Satyavati – and comes to be known as Bhishma.
(Suggested: How did Bhishma get his name?)
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