The Mahabharata is a collection of hundred Parvas (or ‘sections’) that tell the story of a long-standing family feud between two sets of cousins – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – for control of the Kuru throne in Hastinapur.
The climactic event of the story is an eighteen-day war that happens between the two factions on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
It is commonly understood that the Pandavas are the protagonists of this tale and the Kauravas the antagonists – though many retellings have appeared over the years that flip this structure.
In this post, we will summarize the Bhishma Vadha Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
Yudhishthir Seeks Blessings
After Krishna’s sermon is over and Arjuna gets up in his chariot, bow in hand, the Pandava army erupts in joy. Yudhishthir then does something unexpected; he asks to be taken alone in a car into the depth of the Kaurava ranks.
As the king prepares for his journey, all four of his brothers try to dissuade him, but Krishna smiles and says, ‘I know why Yudhishthir is going over to the enemy side. He wishes to seek the blessings of the grandsire and the preceptor.’
Watching Yudhishthir’s chariot speed toward them alone, the warriors in the Kaurava camp also speculate as to his motivation. ‘Perhaps he is coming to concede the war to us,’ says Duryodhana hopefully.
‘The sight of eleven akshauhinis and such a glittering array of fighters must have weakened his heart. He is now coming to beg forgiveness of Bhishma.’
Yudhishthir, of course, approaches Bhishma and bows to him. ‘I have come, Grandfather,’ he says, ‘to seek your blessings. With your permission, we are going to fight this great army you commandeer. Let it be that we emerge victorious in this war.’
Bhishma is pleased with the king’s gesture. ‘If you had not come to me today, Yudhishthir,’ he says, ‘I would have cursed you to lose. But now, my heart is overwhelmingly gladdened. Besides the battle itself, ask me for any boon, son, and I will grant it to you.’
Yudhishthir says, ‘It is my wish, sire, that despite your love for the Pandavas, you must fight with all your might for the sake of Duryodhana.’
‘That is understood!’ replies Bhishma. ‘Ask me for any other boon, excepting victory in the war.’
‘Then tell me, O Grandsire,’ says Yudhishthir, ‘how we can vanquish an invincible warrior such as you.’
Bhishma thinks for a moment, surveys the many heroes arrayed on the other side, facing him. Then he says, ‘I do not see even one man in your army, Yudhishthir, that is capable of defeating me when I stand to fight. That is all I can tell you.’
(The meaning behind these words can be taken in two ways: one, that Bhishma is hinting that Yudhishthir must look beyond men in order to defeat him.
And two, that in order to have a chance of overthrowing him, it is first necessary to remove from his heart the willingness to fight.)
After this, Yudhishthir pays his respects to Dronacharya and asks him the same question. Drona replies, ‘I cannot be defeated by anyone until I have voluntarily chosen to embrace death by withdrawing into meditation, O King.
‘I will cast off my arms in battle if I hear something very disagreeable to me from the lips of someone who can never speak an untruth. Unless something of that magnitude happens, therefore, the Pandavas will not succeed in slaying me.’
Both Drona and Bhishma wish Yudhishthir all the best in battle. After circling each of their chariots three times in a mark of respect, the king approaches Kripa and Shalya for blessings too.
Later, Yuyutsu, one of the Kaurava brothers, switches sides to fight for the Pandavas.
Bhimasena Routs the Kalingas
On Day 2, Bhima distinguishes himself by fighting singlehandedly against an entire Kalinga army.
He leaves behind a veritable elephant graveyard in his wake, as he uses his sword to slice through the massive bodies of these beasts, cutting open their trunks, piercing their sides, sometimes climbing on top of them and driving the blade of his sword into their heads.
Elephant drivers and warriors who fought on top of them also meet with the same fate, dismembered all over the area, with the Pandava walking among them with impetuosity, looking about, in the manner of a tiger searching for fresh kill.
He now fights chariot archers on foot too, first breaking their arrows in mid-flight by means of his sword and then advancing on them from the side to drag them out of their vehicles so that he can stab them to death.
Many others he frightens with his leonine roars, and the Nishadas thus flee in fear at the advancing tornado that is Bhimasena.
At the end of it all, Satyaki embraces Bhimasena and singing his praises in the presence of Dhrishtadyumna. ‘You alone have fought with the army of the Kalingas, O Bhima,’ he says, ‘and have routed them completely.
‘What we thought was a massive force of elephants and chariots is now nothing but rubble. All thanks to you!’
Krishna Almost Fights – 1
On Day 3, Arjuna and Bhishma come face to face to fight. Here, Krishna takes the opportunity to blame Bhishma for everything that has occurred.
‘You are the root cause of this great slaughter, Grandsire,’ he says. ‘A wise minister who treads on the path to righteousness should restrain a king addicted to evil.
‘Specimens of our race that transgress their duty should be cast away and disowned, not given free rein. Today, you will see the death of Duryodhana at my hands, and indeed, before I get to him, I must go through you, O Son of Ganga.’
But as Krishna makes this speech while standing in front of Bhishma’s chariot, Arjuna runs after him and seizes him by both his hands.
But Krishna is so beside himself with rage that he drags Arjuna with him toward Bhishma, like a gale uprooting a single tree. Arjuna now falls on Krishna’s feet, stopping him with great difficulty at the tenth step.
‘Conquer this anger of yours, O Hrishikesha,’ he pleads. ‘You are the sole refuge of the Pandavas. Would we have had the courage to fight this war if it were not for you? Let it not be said that Krishna had to forswear his oath because of the cowardice of the Pandavas.’
Krishna is gratified by Arjuna’s words, so he renders the Sudarshana Chakra invisible once again. He comes back to the chariot, reclaims his seat, takes the reins in one hand, and with the other, blows on the Panchajanya.
On Day 5, it so happens that Bhima ventures alone deep into the Kaurava ranks. Though he fights gamely, he is slowly worn down by the sheer numbers of Kauravas surrounding him.
Here, he receives support from Dhrishtadyumna. He follows the trail of fallen elephants and soldiers left in Bhimasena’s wake.
He keeps his ears open for the Pandava’s cry, and while doing so, he urges his charioteer to keep moving forward, engaging with warriors only fleetingly.
After a while of searching thus, he catches up with Bhima. At this moment, sixteen chariots of great Kaurava warriors have surrounded the Pandava, and are raining arrows on him. He is doing his best to defend himself with the mace.
The Panchala prince switches on to battle mode, therefore, and begins shooting arrows of his own, first to break the circle around Bhima, and then entering it so that he can stand by his friend’s side.
He jumps to the ground, tends to Bhima’s injuries, pulls out the shafts that have pierced him, and embraces him in a show of support.
Duryodhana sees this and calls to his men to attack the duo. ‘Let the son of Drupada and the son of Pandu together be slain today by our weapons. Onward!’
But Dhrishtadyumna is ready for them. He uses a weapon called the Pramohana, which is a weapon of illusion that afflicts the mental balance of one’s foes.
By casting this, he causes the Kaurava army to flee in fear in all directions, with their horses and elephants being struck by chaos as well.
Dhrishtadyumna thus rescues Bhima.
Death of Iravan
Toward the evening of Day 7, Iravan – the son of Arjuna by Ulupi – and Alambusha seek each other out for a fight.
The Rakshasa, with his powers of illusion, creates two thousand horses ridden by shades brandishing spears forged out of smoke. But Iravan manages to dispel the illusion with his arrows.
In the ensuing battle where both warriors fight on foot, Iravan cuts off the limbs of Alambusha repeatedly, but each time he is reborn in the form of a youthful and unwounded man.
All the dismembered limbs pile up next to them, and the rest of the Pandava soldiers wonder how many Rakshasas are being slain in this battle. They speak of the valour of Iravan who, with his mighty sword, is causing a massacre of the Rakshasa army on his own.
Iravan now summons his army of Nagas to support him. With all of them surrounding Alambusha, it looks like Iravan has assumed the form of Anantasesha himself.
But the Rakshasa proves more than equal to the task, using a mantra that invokes the powers of Garuda to devour them all.
Watching his minions disappear into the illusory construct erected by Alambusha, Iravan is momentarily confounded. The Rakshasa pounces on this opportunity, and with two decisive swipes of the sword, beheads the Naga prince.
With this death, Day 7 of the battle ends.
Krishna Almost Fights – 2
The second instance of Krishna almost fighting against Bhishma happens on Day 9 of the war.
Arjuna and Bhishma happen to cross paths during the afternoon of Day 9. The fight begins almost evenly, but Arjuna finds that his ambivalence has returned. He does not fight against his grandfather with the required verve.
Krishna notices this and gives a sigh of exasperation.
With a roar of anger – much of it directed at his friend – he leaps off the chariot, whip in hand, and rushes toward Bhishma’s vehicle. At this sight the entire army of the Kauravas gasps as one, and they say among themselves, ‘Bhishma is as good as slain!’
Bhishma, for his part, like he did on the previous occasion, raises his bow in respect and invites Krishna to attack him. ‘Take my life right this moment, O Madhava,’ he says. ‘Strike me as you please, for I am no more than your slave.
‘My death will be a pious one indeed if it comes at your hands.’ He then fits an arrow to the string of his bow. ‘But do not assume, O Kesava, that I shall not fight you. It is my duty to protect my king without surrender.
‘If you must kill me, be it so that you must defeat me first!’
But like before, Arjuna runs after Krishna and drags him away by the feet. ‘Do not give way to anger, O Krishna!’ he says. ‘Do not let it be said that the prince of Dwaraka has forsworn his oath.’
Krishna allows himself to be dragged away. But immediately after the day’s fighting ends, he begins to plot the end of Bhishma.
‘How can we kill you?’
At the end of Day 9 of the Mahabharata war, all five Pandavas and Krishna visit Bhishma at his tent.
(We are not told how they gained such easy entrance into the enemy camp. One assumes there would be guards around to stop that sort of thing. Or maybe visitors are allowed if they vow to have come in peace.)
After pleasantries have been exchanged, Yudhishthir says: ‘Has a man that can defeat you in fair fight been born on this Earth, O Devavrata? I think not.
‘We have come, therefore, to ask you directly: tell us the means by which we can vanquish you, so that we might gain the sovereignty of the three worlds with your blessing.’
Bhishma replies: ‘As long as I am alive, Yudhishthir, you will not gain victory. Indeed, I have never lost a battle in my life. After I am defeated, however, you will have your chance. So do not be bothered with emotions, O sons of Pritha. Smite me with all your power.
‘‘A warrior is invincible only when he is willing to fight, Yudhishthir, and when his weapons are raised. If he is made to relinquish his arms, then even the smallest car-warrior can kill him.
‘If I am faced by a woman in battle, O Pandava, or one who has once been a female, or one who bears the name of a female, I am not going to fight her.’
Having received their answer, Krishna and the Pandavas return to their tents after paying their respects.
Early on Day 10, with Duryodhana once again complaining to Bhishma about his commitment to the cause, the grandsire takes an oath to either kill the Pandavas or die trying.
‘Listen to what I say, Duryodhana,’ he says calmly. ‘I have vowed to you on the eve of battle that I will kill ten thousand Kshatriyas per day, and so far, I have kept my promise. But today, for your sake, I will attempt to achieve an even greater feat.
‘Today I will seek out the Pandavas, and I will kill them all. If I am unable to do so, understand that I have given up my life attempting that mammoth task.
‘I will do this today out of gratitude, O King, for the food you have given me all these years, and for the honour you bestowed upon me by making me leader of your army.’
Arjuna now propels Shikhandi toward Bhishma. ‘Today, O Prince, you have no cause for fear from the grandsire. He will not strike you, and I will prevent any of the other Kaurava heroes from defending him against your arrows.’
And taking Dhrishtadyumna and Abhimanyu along with him, Partha rides behind Shikhandin as the Panchala prince instructs his charioteer to lead him to Bhishma.
Shikhandi Meets Bhishma
With ten broad-headed arrows, Shikhandi pierces Bhishma in the chest.
The son of Ganga only looks up at his attacker with eyes of red wrath, as if intending to consume the prince with them. But he does not fight. In sight of everyone, he pulls back his drawing arm to a neutral position with a grunt of effort.
Shikhandi does not understand this, but Arjuna calls out to him and says, ‘Rush onward quickly, O Prince! I do not see anyone in this great army of Yudhishthir that is deserving of defeating this great maharatha save for you.
‘Son of Drupada, this indeed is your destiny. Go embrace it!’
Thus urged, Shikhandi covers Bhishma with all diverse kinds of weapons, but the latter insists on shooting back only at Arjuna. With all his anger channeled toward the rest of the Pandava army, the grandsire lets loose on many soldiers that are fighting on foot.
But the sheer numbers begin to weigh on Bhishma, and the arrows of Shikhandi continue to descend upon him with alarming regularity.
He tries to pull them out of his flesh and cast them away because they impede with his drawing of the bow, but there are so many that he starts to slow down.
Taking a cue from the leader of the Kaurava army who is no longer fighting according to the rules, the moral fibre of the war in general breaks down.
Chariot warriors are supposed to fight other chariot warriors only, elephants are supposed to fight with other elephants only and so on.
But watching Bhishma tearing into footmen and archers alike, everyone else starts doing the same until the battleground resembles a slaughterhouse.
For the first nine days, Bhishma has killed around ten thousand soldiers per day.
But on this tenth afternoon alone, armed with the celestial powers of Parashurama’s spell, he claims the lives of ten thousand elephants, five thousand infantrymen, one thousand elephant riders, ten thousand horses, and seven great chariot warriors.
He takes up a position between the two armies now, ostensibly at the head of the Kaurava army, but such is his sheer brilliance that none of the warriors of his own side dare to get too close to him.
Pointing his whip at the grandsire, Krishna says to Arjuna in a quiet voice, ‘Look at the son of Ganga, O Partha, who stands between the two forces, resolute and strong like the mountain Meru.
‘As long as he stands on his two feet, there is no possibility of this war ever ending.’
Arjuna raises his Gandiva in response, and as its twang rends the air, his chariot speeds across the plain toward that of Bhishma. In front of him is Shikhandi, who begins to rain arrows at the fire-like vehicle.
Bhishma remains steadfast to his promise, responding to Shikhandi’s shafts with mere smiles, refusing to turn his bow toward the Panchala prince. Watching him weaken a little, Arjuna seizes the opportunity to shoot at the grandsire’s bow and break it.
Bhishma seethes in rage and hurls at his grandson an iron dart, which the latter breaks into fragments in mid-flight. Watching his weapon hit the dust and disappear, with Shikhandi’s arrows descending upon him relentlessly now, Bhishma begins to wonder whether his time has come.
He looks up at the skies for a sign, and he sees the sages of the world looking down upon him. ‘Withdraw from this battle, Son,’ they tell him. ‘Let the course of destiny resume unhindered.’
Bhishma nods at the voices that only he can hear, and instructs his charioteer to take him closer to Arjuna.
His chariot wheels are destroyed. His charioteer is beheaded. His horses are killed. Each new shaft that enters his body makes him tremble, partly in pain, partly in relief.
‘These arrows coursing toward me in a single straight line,’ he says out loud, to no one in particular, ‘whose touch resembles that of the thunderbolt, have been shot by Arjuna. They do not belong to Shikhandi.
‘Cutting through my armour and piercing my skin with such force, these shafts are not Shikhandi’s. Save for the heroic Gandiva-wielder, no one in the army of the Pandavas can cause me such strife, and if I surrender, it is to the prowess of Arjuna!’
‘A Pillow for my Head’
He steps onto the ground now and picks up a sword to smite those footmen who venture within range. With arrows sticking out of his body in all directions, the warrior waves his sword a couple of times, only to see that no one is attacking him.
For a moment he stands, watching Shikhandi, Arjuna, Bhima and Yudhishthir arrayed before him. Then he drops the sword and allows himself to fall.
His body does not touch the earth, though. He lies suspended on the bed of arrows, looking up at the sky. The sages wonder if this is the moment he will choose to embrace death, but he says:
‘The sun is in the southern solstice, and I intend to leave this earth when it enters the northern declension. I am still alive, O Sages! And I shall hold my breath until the right moment. Do not fret.’
Duhsasana flees to where Drona is fighting and blurts out the entire story. The preceptor swoons out of shock, and upon return to consciousness, sends out messengers on fleet horses to every part of his army to lay down arms.
The Pandavas too, at the behest of Yudhishthir, put aside their arms and congregate around the prone figure.
Bhishma welcomes them cheerfully. ‘Come, my children!’ he says. ‘Come, O Great Warriors. It has been a pleasure fighting you all these days. But this is how it must end. I have chosen to withdraw from this battle.
‘I will renounce my life, too, at the moment the sun enters the northern solstice.’
He then makes a strange request. ‘My head is not supported, adequately. Can someone here please arrange for a pillow?’
Arjuna steps up, strings his bow. After saluting Bhishma, with his eyes tear-filled, he says, ‘I am your slave, Grandfather, now and forever. I shall do your bidding.’
He pulls three arrows from his quiver, holds them to the tip of his nose, and closes his eyes. Murmuring a prayer, he fits them to the Gandiva and shoots them into the ground. He then gently places the grandsire’s head over the arrows’ feathers.
Bhishma is pleased that Arjuna had divined his thoughts. ‘I am now being treated like a true Kshatriya, O Kings. Do not grieve over me, for every one among you is destined to lie on the battlefield in this very state, on your own bed of arrows.’
‘Water for my Throat’
After the night has passed away, early next morning, the Dhartarashtras and the Pandavas come to pay respects to Bhishma. For a short time before sunrise on the eleventh day, the cousins sit together without their armour or weapons, and speak to one another civilly of old times.
Bhishma, however, appears to be in trouble, constantly sighing and fidgeting. When someone asks him what the matter is, he says, ‘My throat is parched, and the arrows hurt me more than they should. I wish water could be brought to me.’
Once again the assembled kings command servants to bring jars of scented water and juice taken out of the best fruits, but the grandsire does not want them. He looks at Arjuna, who steps up again with the Gandiva in hand and bows.
‘My body is afflicted with great pain, Arjuna,’ says Bhishma. ‘You are a great bowman, the greatest in the world. I know for certain that you can remove this pain, and quench the burning thirst that I feel upon my tongue and in my throat.’
‘So be it,’ Arjuna replies, and takes out an arrow from his quiver. Converting it into the Parjanyastra with the right incantation, he places it on his bow and pierces the earth with it. From the hole left by the arrow rises a jet of water that is pure, cool, and scented like nectar.
After having a drink, Bhishma turns to eye Duryodhana and advises him to call off his army. ‘Abandon your wrath, O Dhartarashtra. Even now it is not too late to do the right thing. Call off the war. Make peace with your brothers.’
But Duryodhana refuses to listen. After the two sets of brothers finish paying homage to the grandsire, they return to their respective tents.
A Surprise Visitor
After all the princes have gone home, Bhishma gets a visit from Karna.
He breaks into a sob and places his hands on Bhishma’s feet. He introduces himself as the son of Radha. ‘I am the one king for whom you had nothing but hatred, sir,’ he says.
Bhishma’s eyes flutter open, and when he sees who has come to meet him, he embraces Karna with one arm. ‘No,’ he says, ‘you are not the son of Radha and Adiratha. I know you are Kunti’s eldest. The island-born sage told me this before the battle began.
‘Know that I bear you no malice, my son. Your birth occurred in an unvirtuous manner. You have been cast away sinfully. It is for this reason that your heart forever burns at the sight of any man with merit.
‘If you are to achieve greatness, Karna, you must let go of this foe called envy.
‘Instead focus on your own good qualities. You are a great warrior. Your patronage of Brahmins in Anga has become legendary. In lightness of hand and in sureness of foot, you are among our best.
‘None of these qualities that you possess will forsake you if you acknowledge other men who are better blessed than you are. Soothe your heart. Convince it that looking inward is a thousand times more fruitful than outward.
‘And once you gain this power over yourself, Karna, you will be truly great. You will no longer need to fight this war to prove to yourself that you are superior to the Pandavas. Indeed, you are one of them!
‘You will tell Duryodhana, will you not, that this war is depleting Mother Earth of good men? Go back and caution him that his death is nigh; ask him to call off the battle. If you tell him, O King of Anga, he will listen.’
But Karna refuses to do this. With this ends the Bhishma Vadha Parva.