Arjuna is the most powerful warrior in the Mahabharata universe. He is the third of the Pandavas in order of seniority, born after Yudhishthir and Bhimasena.
He is the last of Kunti’s children. After his birth, Kunti decides that she will summon no more gods and bear no more sons. Nakula and Sahadeva, the fourth and fifth of the Pandavas respectively, are born to Madri, Pandu’s second wife.
In this post, we will answer the question: Why did Arjuna kill Bhishma?
On the ninth day of the war, Bhishma adopts a strategy of killing as many common soldiers of the Panchala army so that the Pandavas will be left without any means with which to fight. To counter this, on the tenth day, Arjuna uses Shikhandi as a human shield in order to defeat Bhishma and remove him from the battlefield.
Read on to discover more about why Arjuna killed Bhishma in the Mahabharata.
(For answers to all Arjuna-related questions, see Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Going into the Kurukshetra war, Bhishma’s loyalties are a bit divided. He is not as committed to fighting for the Kuru army as passionately as he would have if the enemy were a different kingdom.
In this case, the warriors arrayed against him are none other than his own grandchildren. Though they have taken the help of Panchala, Matsya and some other kingdoms, the rebellion is being mounted by the sons of Pandu.
Bhishma says all the right things while being appointed Duryodhana’s commander. He claims himself to be humbled by the honour. He promises that he will fight to the utmost of his ability.
But in his heart, Bhishma intends to steer the war in such a manner that none of the Pandavas get hurt. To this end, he gives Duryodhana an ultimatum designed to keep Karna away from the battlefield.
(Bhishma knows that Karna is the only person on the Kaurava side capable of killing Arjuna – because of the Vasava dart. So his first step in protecting the Pandavas is to ensure that Karna does not fight.)
Second, Bhishma fights in such a manner that he focuses inordinately on killing common foot-soldiers of the Panchala army. The aim is to make it so that the Pandavas are left without an army with which to fight.
(Suggested: Why did Bhishma not allow Karna to fight?)
Is Bhishma’s strategy ethical?
In the agreement drawn up between the two sides at the beginning of the war, one rule explicitly states that chariot warriors should only duel with other chariot warriors, and foot-soldiers should be left to engage with other foot-soldiers.
The reasoning behind this is that chariot warriors are often at an undue advantage over soldiers fighting on foot. For one, chariot warriors can shoot arrows and other ranged weapons whereas infantrymen fight with close-combat weapons – like swords, clubs and maces.
For another, chariot warriors are positioned at an elevation, and they can move around the field with much more speed. These warriors also have received training in how to use certain divine weapons, none of which the average foot-soldier knows how to counter.
So all in all, it is considered bad form for a chariot-warrior to fight against foot-soldiers.
However, this rule is often broken. At various times in the war, Arjuna, Satyaki, Bhimasena, Ashwatthama, Karna, Drona and Abhimanyu kill thousands upon thousands of foot-soldiers.
Of all the rules of Dharmayuddha – do not kill an enemy who has relinquished his weapons, do not kill an enemy when he is unarmed, do not kill an enemy when he is sleeping, etc. – this one seems to be the least serious.
In short, Bhishma’s methods are – strictly speaking – unethical, but not grievously so.
Compounding the effect of Bhishma’s intention, Arjuna displays much reluctance in fighting his grandfather whenever they face each other in battle.
On two separate occasions in the first ten days, Krishna gets so exasperated by Arjuna’s lack of enthusiasm that he leaps off the chariot himself and advances menacingly at Bhishma, with his Sudarshana Chakra held aloft.
On both these occasions, Bhishma throws away his bow and invites Krishna to attack him. ‘Dying at your hands is a fitting end to my life, O Madhava,’ he says.
In his mind, Bhishma knows that if Krishna can be made to forswear his oath of non-violence, the Pandavas will lose all moral high ground, and the war will be brought to a halt. Even if Bhishma dies in the process, his aims – for negotiation and peace – will be realized.
Also on both occasions, Arjuna drags Krishna back to the chariot and promises that he will henceforth fight ruthlessly.
The second of Krishna’s outbursts happens late on the ninth day, with Bhishma rampaging against the Pandava army. Later that night, Krishna warns Yudhishthir: ‘If Bhishma continues like this, you will soon have no army left.’
(Suggested: 12 Mahabharata Stories From the Bhishma Parva.)
A Plan is Hatched
The Pandavas and Krishna go to visit Bhishma in his tent that night, and ask him how he can be killed. Bhishma tells them that he has taken an oath that he will never fight against a woman, or a person who has once been a woman.
Shikhandi is the only warrior on the Pandava side that answers to that description.
So on the tenth day, Yudhishthir arranges his forces such that Shikhandi is the centrepiece, with Bhima and Arjuna each guarding the Panchala prince’s chariot wheels.
The strategy is simple: Shikhandi will follow Bhishma around the battlefield for the entire day, shooting arrows at him. And Bhima and Arjuna will defend Shikhandi from all the other Kaurava warriors who will support Bhishma.
However, as the battle develops on the tenth day, it becomes increasingly clear to everyone in the Pandava camp that Shikhandi’s arrows are simply not powerful enough to penetrate Bhishma’s armour.
Not only is Bhishma easily able to withstand Shikhandi, he is also able to resume his assault on the Pandava foot-soldiers while the other Kaurava heroes tarry with Arjuna and Bhima.
Around mid-day, therefore, Krishna tells Arjuna that the time has come for him to attack the grandsire directly. Arjuna is still reluctant, but he knows that if he hesitates now, Krishna will break his oath and attack Bhishma himself.
Arjuna now begins to shoot arrows at Bhishma while being stationed behind Shikhandi. Bhishma notices that the arrows flying at him now are a bit stronger than those that have been bothering him all day.
Some of them are even penetrating his coat of mail, and drawing blood. He examines them and realizes that they are not Shikhandi’s arrows. They’re Arjuna’s.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 42: Bhishma Falls.)
Bhishma Fights Back
Bhishma fights back at all the Panchala and Pandava heroes that surround him, but he is unable to shoot back at Arjuna because Shikhandi is in the way.
He realizes that his time has come, but he continues to battle until he is forced onto his feet, arrows sticking out of his bloodied body. He announces loudly that he is being felled by the arrows of Dhananjaya, not of Shikhandi.
Arjuna shoots so many arrows into Bhishma that when the grandsire falls, his body does not touch the ground. It gets propped up in mid-air.
Arjuna then shoots three arrows into the ground to act as a pillow for Bhishma’s unsupported head. When Bhishma complains of thirst, Arjuna draws out a spring from the earth which shoots water straight into Bhishma’s mouth.
‘You have given me the kind of death a warrior deserves,’ Bhishma tells Arjuna then.
Bhishma, of course, does not die immediately. He has a boon – given him by Shantanu – that he can choose the moment of his death. So he remains alive on his bed of arrows until the war is finished.
He dies only after Yudhishthir has been crowned king, and after imparting to him plenty of wisdom about how to govern a kingdom, how to handle himself, how to think about Dharma, and so on.
It may not be entirely accurate, therefore, to say Arjuna killed Bhishma. It is more correct to say: ‘Arjuna shot at Bhishma, and then Bhishma chose to die when the moment was right.’
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story
- 300+ Mahabharata Stories to Thrill, Delight and Enchant You
- Karna: Your Complete Guide to the Mahabharata’s Antihero
- Draupadi: Your Ultimate Guide to the Mahabharata’s Heroine
- In the Mahabharata, why did Draupadi marry five Pandavas?