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How was Bhishma so powerful?

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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 so powerful?

Bhishma’s power in the Mahabharata comes from the following sources: (1) He is the son of a goddess and a king, so he has pedigree; (2) During the first few years of his life, he has access to the celestial world; (3) He is fortunate that he does not become a king, so he has time and emotional bandwidth to keep his fighting skills from waning.

Read on to discover more about how Bhishma was so powerful.

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

Son of a Goddess

To the extent that there is truth to pedigree, Bhishma’s is top-notch. He is the son of a goddess and a king, which means that he is a demi-god. Mere mortals can never be as good as him – in any respect.

One may argue that demi-gods with human mothers and celestial fathers will turn out to be more powerful than those with human fathers and celestial mothers. But for that, we have to make a choice on whether it is the womb or the male fluid that contains the lion’s share of power.

My general thesis is that the power possessed by a demi-god derives directly from the attributes of his celestial parent. Whether that parent is male or female does not seem to matter as much as how high a status he or she commands.

In Bhishma’s case, Ganga is the river goddess, and she’s one of the top-tier gods. Not as powerful as Shiva or Vishnu, of course, but not to be scoffed at either.

As his father, Bhishma has Shantanu, who is the incarnation of Mahabhisha, a royal sage who was so virtuous and pure that he had been given entry into heaven.

With such people as parents, Bhishma can be said to have had the best start in life.

Celestial Advantages

As a child, Bhishma is taken to Heaven by Ganga, where he lives for sixteen years.

During this time, he is accorded all the advantages that accrue naturally to heaven-dwellers. He gets to live among celestials, observe their ways of life. He likely gets a share of the divine nectar that lengthens the life of the gods.

He gets trained in spiritual affairs by Vasishtha, and in the art of war and weaponry by Parashurama. One assumes that these two men have hermitages at the foothills of Meru, where they live for at least part of the year.

All this means that in addition to his birth, Bhishma is accorded the most privileged environment possible during his formative years. Essentially, he lives a god’s life until he is brought down to Earth.

At the time he is reintroduced to Shantanu, therefore, he has the ‘glow’ of a celestial: a glow that results from living a life free of disease and death and suffering, and of learning at the best teachers.

In every respect, he is miles ahead of his peers already.

Fewer Responsibilities

The oath that he takes to become celibate – the oath that makes him ‘Bhishma’ – works in his favour in a couple of ways:

  • It removes him from the responsibility of ever becoming king of the Kuru kingdom.
  • It removes the possibility of him ever being entangled in the daily affairs that afflict all householders who have wives and children.

To be fair, Bhishma does take on the responsibility of guarding the Kuru throne. During the Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya years – and during the time of Pandu and Dhritarashtra’s childhoods – it is he who effectively rules the Kuru people.

But he never officially accepts the position of king. By doing this, he is able to distance himself from many of the mundane, everyday activities that a king must perform which saps his energy.

His oath of celibacy also protects him from the woes – while also denying him the pleasures – of managing a family and a household. Women and children come with their own set of expectations to which a householder must constantly attend.

Both these ‘gifts’ mean that Bhishma is left with much more time and mental energy to stay at the cutting edge of his fighting prowess. He can keep practicing his archery, working on his strength and conditioning, maintaining his fitness, adding more dimensions to his skills, and so on.

If he had become a king and if he had had children and wives – like all the others – his powers would have waned at least a little.

Talent and Perseverance

Having said all this, it is undeniable that Bhishma is blessed with an abundance of natural talent. Yes, it has been given the opportunity to flourish right from a young age, but he would not have become the powerhouse that he is on opportunity alone.

In addition to that, Bhishma must have been genuinely interested in the art of archery, and in the knowledge contained within the scriptures. That interest must have fed his perseverance to continually invest time over his life to practicing these arts.

It is a combination of all these factors – talent, privilege, opportunity, interest and perseverance – that makes Bhishma a powerful warrior that fights indefatigably even at the age of hundred.

Conclusion

The nature of power in general has not changed from that time to this. Bhishma’s power comes from the same source as yours and mine. If we have to decode the best practitioners of any given art and explore where their excellence comes from, we might conclude that:

  • The person is born to a privileged set of parents (financially and socially), or in a privileged society which can afford safety nets that cushion failure.
  • The person has a natural inclination toward their chosen discipline. This inclination is spotted early, and is given the opportunity to blossom.
  • The person has a facility to perform this discipline well in relation to their peers. This usually happens as a consequence of their natural inclination being encouraged.
  • The ‘talent’ and the ‘interest’ feed off each other and form a virtuous loop of practice and improvement.
  • The person either chooses – or is given – enough time and emotional bandwidth to focus on the practice and improvement cycle repeatedly.

Some of the above are choices that the person makes, while others are outside his control. (For instance, none of us can choose our parents.) But all in all, excellence and power are largely impossible without all of these factors coming together.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!