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: Was Bhishma a virgin?
There is a good chance that Bhishma is a virgin. However, we must allow for the possibility that in his long life, he might have met women who were past the age of childbearing who may have consented to sleep with him. It is also possible that he engaged in non-procreative intercourse with women.
Read on to discover more about whether or not Bhishma was a virgin.
(For answers to all Bhishma-related questions, see Bhishma: 14 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
A Celibate Life
In order to ensure that Shantanu gets to marry Satyavati, Bhishma takes the oath of lifelong celibacy. The Sanskrit word for it is Brahmachari.
A Brahmachari observes – or is supposed to observe – complete celibacy in all his actions. He does not perform any act that can even remotely be thought of as erotic.
In fact, a true Brahmachari returns to a state of innocence that he possessed before puberty, when sex and sexual pleasure were alien concepts.
That is the goal, at least; to reclaim your innocence as much as possible. A person who has taken the vow of Brahmacharya, therefore, will not indulge in any action that is motivated by erotic thought.
A Celibate Mind
A true Brahmachari is also meant to possess a completely celibate mind – a mind which never entertains thoughts of a sexual nature. A man who has succeeded at Brahmacharya will have also succeeded in completely cleansing his mind of all erotic thought.
Of course, this is impossible for most adults. And that is why the state of Brahmacharya is widely considered the hardest to maintain.
In practice, no second person will ever know what a Brahmachari is thinking. A person who is celibate by action may be freely indulging in sexual fantasy every waking moment of his life.
On the other hand, for plenty of Brahmacharis, the oath may present daily challenges of how one may banish sexual thoughts from one’s mind when they occur.
Also closely connected to this issue is the question of whether self-pleasure is accepted practice among Brahmacharis. Intuition says no, but from a practical point of view, we must concede that most Brahmacharis probably pleasure themselves.
In fact, they may even consider self-pleasuring to be necessary in order to reclaim their innocence.
Extent of Celibacy
Some people take the oath of Brahmacharya to accomplish a certain goal in the real world. Others do so because they have been instructed accordingly by their preceptors.
For instance, it is not uncommon for young men to be advised the vow of Brahmacharya during the four or five years they undertake to educate themselves under a teacher. Typically, this happens between the ages of eleven and fifteen.
In Bhishma’s case, he takes the oath in order to accomplish a very specific goal: that he should not bear children.
In both cases, a practical observer may notice that celibacy itself can be defined in different ways. A man may reason with himself that holding a woman’s hand is not a breach of the oath; another may similarly conclude that kissing another person on the lips is not a breach either.
Another may say that one’s celibacy remains intact until he releases his vital fluid inside another person.
In determining whether or not a person is a virgin, therefore, it is important to know that no objective definition of the word ‘virginity’ exists. As long as the person identifies as a virgin, he or she will be believed to be one.
Having taken all of the above into account, we can now begin to consider Bhishma’s case in unison. The official narrative is that Bhishma is understood to have observed the vow of celibacy in its strictest form.
That means that ever since he takes the vow in the presence of Satyavati and her father, Bhishma has relinquished all thoughts and actions of a sexual nature.
If, during weak moments, he is accosted by desire for a particular woman or for the sensation of erotic pleasure in general, he – like a true Brahmachari – restrains his mind and masters it.
He is a true sage in this sense: he has succeeded in controlling that which even great rishis like Vasishtha and Vishwamitra have not. He has mastered sexual desire.
During the course of his long life, therefore, Bhishma does not pleasure himself. He trains his mind to swerve away from sexual thoughts at all times. And his actions, of course, follow suit.
Bhishma is a virgin. Mentally, emotionally, and physically.
On the other hand, the Mahabharata does not make any explicit statements about how well or how badly Bhishma has observed his vow during his life. Did he observe it to the fullest extent? Or did he observe it just to the extent necessary to ensure that he does not bear children?
If we accept the premise that Bhishma may have allowed himself to indulge within the boundary of ‘not having children’, a number of possible scenarios arise:
- He may have allowed himself to enjoy a woman’s company in the realm of fantasy.
- He may have added self-pleasure to his fantasy, always ensuring that he releases his vital fluid alone.
- He may have sought the company of women who have (a) grown past childbearing age, or (b) who have been rendered childless by disease or some other afflictions.
- He may have sought the company of men or members of other genders that are biologically incapable of bearing children.
All of the above will still fulfil his promise to Satyavati’s father – that he will not have children – while also ensuring that he enjoys a reasonably explorative sexual life.
It does tarnish his reputation as a Brahmachari, though. His oath of Brahmacharya will be considered by the gods to be broken the moment he begins to find a path that will allow him to indulge.
While a cynic may jump at this theory and say, ‘Of course Bhishma must have done it. How do we know that he didn’t?’ we know for certain that Bhishma – at his death – commands the respect of all the gods and sages.
The implication here is that if Bhishma had broken his Brahmacharya in any way, the sages and gods would have known – and they would have seen to it that he is suitably punished for it. At the very least, they would have taken away from him the boons and rewards that have come his way.
For starters, they would have released a general-purpose announcement that Bhishma is no longer worthy of that title.
And there is a good chance that Shantanu – from Heaven – would have revoked the boon he gave his son. Bhishma would not have been allowed to cling to the gift of choosing his time of death.
For all these reasons, the likelihood that Bhishma lived a life of secret sexual adventure while keeping himself childless is very slim.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- Bhishma: 14 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Krishna: 36 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered