How was Bhishma related to the Pandavas?

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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 was Bhishma related to the Pandavas?

Bhishma is the son of Shantanu by Ganga, a river goddess. Shantanu’s second wife, Satyavati, has two sons, Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya. Vichitraveerya’s wives – through the help of Vyasa – give birth to Pandu and Dhritarashtra. The Pandavas are Pandu’s sons. Bhishma, therefore, is grandfather to the Pandavas.

Read on to discover more about how Bhishma was related to the Pandavas.

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

The First Generation

Bhishma is the son of King Shantanu by Ganga. Bhishma is the eighth son of this couple. The first seven children are killed by Ganga right after their birth in order to fulfil the terms of a curse laid on them by Sage Vasishtha.

Bhishma alone is allowed to survive. It is his destiny to live a long – largely unfulfilled – life here on Earth. He is the human incarnation of Prabhasa, the elemental god of dawn.

Right after Bhishma’s birth, though, Ganga leaves Shantanu – and the king falls in love with a fisher-princess named Satyavati. Bhishma famously takes a lifelong vow of sexual abstinence in order to assure Satyavati’s father that her children will have no rivals to the throne.

Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya are the two sons that Satyavati bears Shantanu. These are Bhishma’s half-brothers, with whom he shares a biological father.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 2: Satyavati Marries Shantanu.)

The Second Generation

Both Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya, however, die without leaving heirs. Chitrangada loses an ill-fated battle against a Gandharva of the same name. Vichitraveerya dies due to a physical affliction a short while after his marriage to Ambika and Ambalika.

(Ambika and Ambalika are princesses of Kosala, and Bhishma wins them at their swayamvara by fighting an entire army of suitors on his own.)

With the death of these two men, the bloodline of Shantanu has effectively come to an end – especially with Bhishma staying steadfast to his vow of celibacy.

In order to continue the Kuru line now, Satyavati summons her long-lost son – Vyasa – to sire children of Ambika and Ambalika. Vyasa performs the deed asked of him, and gives birth to three sons:

  • Dhritarashtra of Ambika;
  • Pandu of Ambalika; and
  • Vidura of an unnamed waiting woman in the Kuru court.

These three are half-brothers to one another because they share a father. However, Dhritarashtra and Pandu are considered to have been adopted by Vichitraveerya, so they’re thought of as brothers.

Essentially, these two boys become Bhishma’s nephews (his brother’s sons). But in reality, there is no blood-relation between him and them. Satyavati, however, is the boys’ biological grandmother.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 4: Kunti, Madri and Gandhari.)

The Third Generation

Dhritarashtra has a hundred and one children with his wife Gandhari. Though the details of their births are strange and grotesque, the Kauravas are considered the biological children of Dhritarashtra.

This means that Satyavati’s blood flows in their veins. Satyavati is the biological daughter of King Uparichara. So we may conclude that the Kauravas are descendants of that man.

Pandu, on the other hand, brings a curse upon himself which prevents him from having children. To get around this, Kunti proposes that she uses a boon that she has received long ago from Sage Durvasa.

She summons three gods one after the other, unites with them, and gives birth to three sons. The gods are Yama, Vayu and Indra in that order – and the boys are Yudhishthir, Bhimasena and Arjuna.

She also gives one use of the magical chant to Madri, Pandu’s second wife. Madri uses it to summon the Ashwin twins, with whom she has the twins Nakula and Sahadeva.

(Whether Nakula and Sahadeva are twins or whether they’re born one year apart from each other is a contentious point. For now, let us assume the former.)

So the first three Pandavas carry Kunti’s bloodline, and they’re closely related to the Yadavas of Shurasena – where Kunti’s brother Vasudeva rules. Nakula and Sahadeva, meanwhile, are the sons of the Madra kingdom, ruled by Shalya.

However, since they’re assumed to have been adopted by Pandu before his death, they’re known as ‘Pandavas’.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 5: Pandavas and Kauravas.)

Bhishma’s Relationship

Bhishma, therefore, witnesses another round of ‘dilution’ of Shantanu’s bloodline. Neither the Kauravas nor the Pandavas have any of the actual Kuru blood that flows in Bhishma’s veins.

The Kauravas are direct descendants of Satyavati, his stepmother. The Pandavas are direct descendants of Pritha and Madri, princesses of kingdoms Kunti and Madra respectively.

But fate has contrived to make the Pandavas the sons of Pandu. Bhishma accepts this, and takes on the role of grandfather to the Kuru princes.

In reality, though, there is no blood-relation between Bhishma and the Pandavas. In fact, the Pandavas are further removed from Bhishma than are the Kauravas.

The Pandavas are related much more closely – from their mother’s side – to Vasudeva, whose sons Krishna and Balarama go on to forge a strong friendship with Arjuna in particular.

Does it matter?

In the Mahabharata universe, characters do not seem to think that real biological relationships matter more than adoptive ones. Once a king adopts a child as his son, everyone around him begins to assume that the bond is as sacred as a ‘real’ one.

This is especially true when the king has either died childless or is unable to have children of his own for various reasons.

So it is likely that Bhishma, in his mind, has never given this matter as much thought as this. He must have honestly thought of Vichitraveerya and Chitrangada as his brothers (not half-brothers), and he must have thought of Dhritarashtra and Pandu as Vichitraveerya’s sons.

It follows that Bhishma thought of the Kauravas and the Pandavas as his very own grandchildren. The thought that he is actually not related to them may not have struck him very often.

Duty to the throne

Bhishma’s one overwhelming obsession in life seems to be the welfare of the Kuru throne. Very early on, he marks Pandu out as a worthier man than Dhritarashtra to rule Hastinapur.

And following from there, he thinks of the Pandavas as ‘good’ and the Kauravas as ‘wicked’. While he claims out loud that he loves both sets of cousins equally, his actions repeatedly show that he considers the Pandavas to be worthier rulers than the Kauravas.

This is despite the fact that the Kauravas have a stronger claim to the throne than do their cousins.

Ironically, therefore, Bhishma ends up supporting the set of grandchildren to whom he is less related in terms of bloodline. And that causes a number of small resentments that slowly build up to cause the battle of Kurukshetra.

Further Reading

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