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 good?
Bhishma was by all accounts a good son, brother, uncle and grandfather. At all times, he places utmost importance on the safety and welfare of the Kuru dynasty. This means taking care of both the Pandavas and Kauravas equally. However, in later years, he displays a definite bias toward the Pandavas that eventually leads to the Kurukshetra war.
Read on to discover more about whether or not Bhishma was good.
(For answers to all Bhishma-related questions, see Bhishma: 14 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Commitment to Kuru
From the time of his vow, Bhishma throws everything he has behind the singular ambition to make Kuru the most powerful kingdom in the world. He pursues diplomatic expansion with fervour, forging alliances with the likes of Kasi, Kunti, Gandhara and Madra.
In a military sense as well, he builds Kuru into a fortress, making it especially more powerful than Panchala, its immediate eastern neighbour.
When Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya both die childless, Bhishma – along with Satyavati – performs the necessary actions to ensure that Ambika and Ambalika are impregnated with Vyasa’s seed to give birth to the next generation of rulers.
Bhishma thus plays an important role in ensuring that the Kuru dynasty does not go extinct.
In saying this, a counterpoint may well be that he should have just foregone his vow and married at this point – because both of Satyavati’s children have died, and the reason for which he had taken the vow no longer exists.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 5: Pandavas and Kauravas.)
The first morally tough decision that Bhishma has to take is when Dhritarashtra, the son of Ambika, is born blind – thus rendering him unsuitable to be king.
At this point, one must ask the question: does a blind boy automatically rule himself out of contention for the throne? Does it follow without doubt that a blind man will make a bad king?
Of course, it depends on who the alternative is. If there is a physically able contender to the throne, it may well be prudent of the guardian (in this case Bhishma) to choose the latter over the former.
But Pandu is younger than Dhritarashtra. For no fault of Dhritarashtra’s (he has not chosen to be blind, after all), what is rightfully his is being given away to his younger brother.
Might there have been a better solution to this? Bhishma might have decided to keep Dhritarashtra on the throne, with himself and Pandu (and Vidura) providing support.
After all, besides fighting, Dhritarashtra can do everything else ably enough – as he indeed proves after Pandu leaves on his exile.
Choosing Pandu’s sons
Even if we give Bhishma the benefit of the doubt in this decision, he goes further and doubles down on his mistake by insisting that the sons of Pandu have a claim to the throne.
This is pushing the issue a bit. When Pandu was made king, Bhishma should have made it clear that the younger prince is only getting the throne for that generation.
In other words, the firstborn of Dhritarashtra will have the first claim to the throne – irrespective of the relative ages of the sons that the two brothers have.
The above is especially true after Pandu – as an adult, and of his own volition – gives up the throne, presents it to Dhritarashtra to rule, and goes into exile with his two wives.
The official narrative at this point is that Dhritarashtra is now ruling Hastinapur on Pandu’s behalf. In reality, though, Dhritarashtra has received his kingdom back from Pandu, and matters have now been set right.
As the Kuru princes grow from their childhoods into their youths, Bhishma the patriarch (and Kunti and Gandhari to lesser extents) has plenty of opportunity to build expectations around the royal family.
He should have let Yudhishthir know that Duryodhana is the primary claimant to the throne, as the eldest son of the reigning king. In fact, he should have made this official and crowned Duryodhana the heir-apparent, so that Kunti, Gandhari and the people of Hastinapur had clear future guidance.
But during this crucial phase, Bhishma is seen to dither in his decision-making. He commits neither to Kunti nor to Gandhari as to who will succeed to the throne.
The princes themselves are given plenty of mixed messages. Duryodhana grows up expecting to be king, and Yudhishthir grows up thinking – perhaps under Kunti’s influence – that he also deserves a share in the spoils.
When we consider that about ten to twelve years pass between the arrival of the Pandavas at Hastinapur and the graduation ceremony of the Kuru princes, we can only conclude that this is a massive failure of leadership on Bhishma’s part.
He has plenty of opportunities to observe the growing animus between the cousins – all owing to his reluctance to act. Yet he chooses to sit on his hands and do nothing.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 8: Karna Arrives.)
The breaking up of the Kuru kingdom into two parts is another decision that should sit on Bhishma’s heart. Soon after the Pandavas marry Draupadi, Bhishma recommends to Dhritarashtra that they should invite them back to Hastinapur – and give them a part of the kingdom as their rightful share.
Along with the establishment of a small capital city at Khandavaprastha, Yudhishthir also receives a share of the Kuru treasury to get him going as king.
This act officialises Bhishma’s stance on the matter. He believes that both the Pandavas and the Kauravas have a claim on the Kuru kingdom, though it appears that he thinks the Pandavas’ share ought to be significantly smaller.
From here, there is no going back on the feud between the cousins. Duryodhana knows that the usurpers (as he sees them) have succeeded in stealing part of his wealth.
For Yudhishthir’s part, he is happy that his bid has succeeded, though his ambitions – now that he has the support of Bhishma – now extend to becoming an emperor.
Support for the Rajasuya
Bhishma lends tacit support for Yudhishthir’s stated goal of becoming a monarch.
If Khandavaprastha had been ruled by another smaller king, there is no way that Bhishma would have allowed a small kingdom like that to dwarf Hastinapur in glory. He would have kept the kingdom under his thumb.
But because Khandavaprastha is ruled by Yudhishthir and the Pandavas, Bhishma turns a lenient eye toward them. When Yudhishthir says he wishes to be emperor, Bhishma gives him his ‘blessings’.
Hastinapur willingly becomes an ally to Indraprastha. Bhishma likely thinks of Yudhishthir as part of the Kuru kingdom, but in reality, Indraprastha is interested in charting its own course.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 15: The Rajasuya.)
Duryodhana sees this. He complains that with Bhishma’s support, the Pandavas – who have been given only a small city at Khandavaprastha at first – are now conquering the world, and are even eclipsing the parent kingdom.
But his words fall on deaf ears. Everyone interprets him as jealous.
Another point that is often overlooked: during this ascension, the Pandavas have the Panchalas as allies because they’re married to Draupadi. This should have been a red alert for Bhishma, because Kuru and Panchala have long been at loggerheads.
He should have seen that helping the Pandavas will also empower the Panchalas, who may then turn around and attack Kuru. This is basic geopolitics, but Bhishma – despite his experience – misses it.
Despite his love for the Pandavas and Yudhishthir, Bhishma cannot bring himself to transcend the frame set by Draupadi during her disrobing – and decree that the blasphemous act should stop.
Draupadi asks Bhishma to adjudicate on a legal point: if Yudhishthir pledged her after having first lost himself, did he still have a right over her as her husband?
What Bhishma should have said here: it does not matter. Regardless of who is right and who is wrong, we are not tarnishing a woman’s honour in this court.
What he says instead: the path of Dharma is subtle and ever-changing. It is impossible to tell for sure what is right and what is wrong in a given situation.
This wavering encourages Vikarna and Karna to take opposite sides of the debate, with the sad result of the latter ‘winning’. It is then left to Vidura to bring sanity back to proceedings – but after a lot of emotion and anger have spilled forth.
As the foremost Kuru elder, Bhishma should have stopped this long before it became a serious matter.
(Suggested: What Happens during Draupadi’s Disrobing?)
In defence of Bhishma
If we have to take up the task of defending Bhishma on all these points, we may say that he is not a malicious person. But he proves himself to be severely lacking in foresight when it comes to matters of succession.
This may be because of many reasons:
- Perhaps he believes that it is Dhritarashtra’s job – as king – to make decisions about setting expectations and making decisions as to who will succeed him.
- Perhaps as a man who has not married and had children, he is unable to fathom the depth of ambition that parents feel on their children’s behalf. He may have naively believed Kunti and Dhritarashtra to rationally choose the ‘moral’ path.
- Perhaps he himself is not above feeling partial to some of his grandchildren over others. His decision to give Yudhishthir a long rope can only be explained from this viewpoint – that he liked him better than he liked Duryodhana.
None of this is to say that Bhishma is a bad person. But despite his reputation as a great military strategist and fighter, he is repeatedly found wanting when tough decisions need to be made concerning human lives.
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