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: Who killed Bhishma Pitamaha?
The actual death of Bhishma occurs when he chooses to breathe his last after he had finished giving Yudhishthir all the wisdom contained within the Shanti and Anushasana Parvas. In the war, he is defeated and felled by Arjuna, who fights against him from behind Shikhandi so that Bhishma would not fight back.
Read on to discover more about who killed Bhishma in the Mahabharata.
(For answers to all Bhishma-related questions, see Bhishma: 14 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
On the occasion of winning Satyavati’s hand in marriage on behalf of his father Shantanu, the elated king gives his son a boon. ‘You are such a virtuous man, Bhishma,’ he says, ‘that death will take possession of you only when you give it permission.’
It is not clear how or why Shantanu has the necessary spiritual power to confer such a significant boon to someone else. There is no record of Shantanu performing austerities severe enough to gain as much energy as this would require.
But we must take the text at face value. We are told that Shantanu does this. We must accept it.
What this means, of course, is that no matter how old Bhishma gets, he refuses to die. In fact, it is fair to say that of all the characters in the Mahabharata, it is Bhishma who is present throughout the entire timeline.
The timeline of Bhishma is, in other words, the timeline of the Mahabharata.
After the end of the Kurukshetra war, Bhishma continues to remain alive on top of the bed of arrows that Arjuna has created for him.
He engages in a long conversation with Yudhishthir, the new king of the Kuru dynasty, and educates him about various matters – of philosophy, of politics, of ethics and of morality.
Only then, after he is sure that Yudhishthir has learned enough, Bhishma calls upon death to come and take him.
After Bhishma’s Death
After the death of Bhishma, the Mahabharata story rapidly winds down to a close. Dhritarashtra, Kunti, Gandhari, Vidura and Sanjaya leave for the forest.
Yudhishthir sits on the throne, and the years pass by uneventfully. In time, the five elders who have exiled themselves pass on quietly.
There is a short epilogue in the form of the Mausala Parva, which details the death of the Vrishnis – Krishna, Balarama, Satyaki, Kritavarma and so on.
After that, the Pandavas themselves set out on their final journey.
Bhishma’s death, therefore, can be said to be the official ending of the Mahabharata. Soon after, everyone else who is alive also follows him up to heaven.
When Yudhishthir finally reaches Indra’s abode in his mortal form, Bhishma is one of the heroes that he sees sitting in the hall of Indra, ready to welcome his grandson.
Did Shikhandi kill Bhishma?
The tactic of placing Shikhandi in front of Arjuna while attacking Bhishma on Day 10 of the war is suggested to the Pandavas by none other than Bhishma.
On the evening of the ninth day, encouraged by Krishna, the Pandavas visit Bhishma’s tent and ask him: ‘How can we defeat you?’
Bhishma smiles and replies, ‘You can only defeat me if you force me to fight against a woman. Or against a man who has once been a woman.’
Now in the entire Pandava army, only person answers to that description: Shikhandi.
So the Pandavas go back to their camp, and immediately rearrange their plans for Day 10 such that Shikhandi is in pole position, directly in opposition with Bhishma.
However, Shikhandi’s right chariot-wheel is guarded by Arjuna. Throughout the day of fighting, Shikhandi and Arjuna dog Bhishma relentlessly. Shikhandi keeps shooting arrows at the Kuru grandsire, and the latter keeps ignoring him to fight other battles.
But Shikhandi’s arrows, by themselves, are not strong enough to pierce through Bhishma’s armour.
As the day wears on, therefore, Krishna takes the decision that it is time for Arjuna to step into the fray.
Did Arjuna kill Bhishma?
Arjuna does not make the mistake, however, of stepping in front of Shikhandi and fighting Bhishma on his own.
Though that would be the ‘fair’ thing to do, it would not change the Pandavas’ fortunes because Bhishma would easily defend himself against Arjuna – he has been doing it for ten days now – while Shikhandi’s arrows will still fail to injure the son of Ganga.
So Arjuna takes the decision to fight from behind Shikhandi, while guarding the Panchala prince’s chariot-wheel.
Essentially, therefore, Arjuna uses Shikhandi as a shield in his fight against Bhishma. Bhishma does not notice this at first. He still ignores Shikhandi and goes about his business. But slowly he begins to see that Shikhandi’s arrows are stinging him a bit.
He takes a closer look, and notices that at least some of the arrows that are beginning to pierce his armour are not Shikhandi’s – but Arjuna’s.
Bhishma is still not able to defend himself against these arrows, because Arjuna conceals himself behind Shikhandi. He realizes, therefore, that his time has come.
While it is impossible to tell whether it was Arjuna’s or Shikhandi’s arrow that caused Bhishma to finally fall, it is reasonable to assume that Arjuna’s share in the spoils is much, much bigger.
Did Amba kill Bhishma?
Finally, the final suspect in the killing of Bhishma is Amba. While Shikhandi is born as a girl named Shikhandini who becomes a man after she grows up into adulthood, Bhishma also hints that Shikhandi is Amba reborn.
Amba is the princess of Kosala whom Bhishma abducts as a young man for the sake of marriage to Vichitraveerya. Due to several unfortunate circumstances, Amba ends up in a forest while her younger sisters, Ambika and Ambalika, becomes queens of Hastinapur.
This infuriates Amba, and the person she blames most for her misfortune is Bhishma.
She tries to exact revenge on him during her life, chiefly by using Parashurama’s services. (Parashurama was once Bhishma’s mentor and teacher, so Amba thinks that the sage can influence him.)
Bhishma, however, defeats Parashurama in a duel and refuses to take responsibility.
Amba then resolves to take matters into her own hands. She propitiates Lord Shiva, who promises her that she will get her vengeance – not in this life but in the next.
Learning this, Amba immediately kills herself. She is then born as Shikhandini in Drupada’s palace in Panchala.
So Amba can be cited as one of the main players in the game of Bhishma’s death.
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