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: Why did Bhishma not marry?
Bhishma did not marry because marriage would have forced on him the expectation to have children. And his children would compete for the throne of Hastinapur against Satyavati’s children. In order to give Satyavati’s sons free rein, Bhishma takes a vow not to marry, and not to have sex with any woman.
Read on to discover more about why Bhishma did not marry.
(For answers to all Bhishma-related questions, see Bhishma: 14 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Shantanu meets Satyavati
After Devavrata returns to Shantanu, he is made crown prince of the kingdom. Shantanu promises his people that Devavrata will soon ascend the throne and begin to rule as king.
However, around this time, Shantanu goes hunting on the bank of the Yamuna and meets Satyavati, the daughter of a local fishing settlement’s chief.
(She is actually the adopted daughter of the fisher-chief. Biologically, she is the daughter of King Uparichara. For more on her birth, see Mahabharata Episode 2: Satyavati marries Shantanu.)
Satyavati, by this time, had already met Sage Parashara and received from him the boon of possessing divine fragrance that emanates from her body. She is, in short, at her most bewitching self.
Shantanu falls under her spell, and asks her to be his wife. Like a proper daughter, Satyavati tells the king that he must come and speak to her father if the matter is to go anywhere.
A father’s worry
When Shantanu repeats the proposal of marriage to Satyavati’s father, the fisher-chief is suitably flattered that a king has sought his daughter’s hand. But he is also a man of the world; he knows that marriages often last longer than does love.
Shantanu may be king now, but he is soon going to step down, and the power of the Kuru throne will be bestowed upon Devavrata. After that, Shantanu’s sway in the kingdom will be minimal. He will still be accorded respect, but he will hold no authority.
And it will be Devavrata’s wife who will be given the position and status of queen. In time, when they have children, it is Devavrata’s children who will grow up to be crown-princes.
Satyavati will be relegated to a forgotten corner of the royal palace. To be sure, she will still have many material comforts that are denied her in this settlement, but in the hierarchy of the Kuru household, she will be an afterthought.
The fisher-chief explains all of these concerns to Shantanu, and rejects the proposal. In his mind, he probably thinks that a younger king with good prospects will make a better match for Satyavati than an older king who is well past his prime.
Shantanu understands the point of view, though that does not prevent him from being dejected. He returns to his palace.
Devavrata steps in
For a few months after this, Devavrata notices that his father is not quite himself. After making inquiries, he comes to know of the full story. Resolving to right matters on behalf of Shantanu, Devavrata goes to the fishing settlement on his own.
There he approaches the fisher-chief directly and asks for Satyavati’s hand for his father.
The man repeats all of his concerns, and reiterates that the match is not quite right for Satyavati’s future.
To which Devavrata replies, ‘I am aware that it is not as matters stand. But I hope to arrive at some terms that I will abide by which will ensure that your daughter’s status in the palace of Hastinapur is secure.’
From here, the prince and the chief engage in a quick round of negotiations.
Devavrata first concedes the throne of Hastinapur to Shantanu, so that Satyavati will be marrying a king – and her position on arrival will be as the official queen of the Kuru kingdom.
The chief replies, ‘But in time, you will take over as king. There is no other heir.’
Devavrata then promises to never lay claim to the throne ever in his life, essentially giving up his right to be king in favour of the unborn children of Satyavati. ‘I promise,’ he says, ‘that the children of your daughter will be kings – not me!’
The chief acknowledges that this is a weighty concession to make. Then he says, ‘I trust your word that you will never lay claim to the throne, my lord. But what of your wife and your sons? They will have minds of their own; how am I to know that your children will not grow up to be rivals of my daughter’s children?’
This is a fair point, and Devavrata admits as much. After some thought, he makes another promise. ‘I promise I will never marry. So you may rest easy about my children.’
The chief smiles sadly. ‘Even an unmarried man may have children, Prince,’ he says. ‘And even illegitimate children have been known to topple kingdoms.’
Devavrata is thus led to the final, logical point of the whole debate. ‘From today, I will take the lifelong vow of celibacy. I shall not ever touch a woman, let alone sleep with one, so I shall not bear any children – legitimate or otherwise.’
A ‘terrible’ vow
This satisfies the fisher-chief enough to agree to Satyavati’s marriage to Shantanu. At this point, the gods and other celestial beings shower flowers upon Devavrata, and chant the word ‘Bhishma’ over and over again.
The word Bhishma means ‘terrible’ or ‘serious’. Not only did Devavrata take a vow to forego the pleasure of female companionship, he also gave up rights to the throne that was already his. He also effectively cut off his lineage at himself, ensuring that his ‘seed’ will not be propagated beyond him.
All of this to fulfil his father’s passing desire for a woman.
The ‘terribleness’ of the vow is not that he chooses to be celibate; after all, many sages before and since have chosen to be Brahmacharis for life. It is the willingness with which Devavrata sacrifices everything that is rightfully his for the sake of his father.
From this moment on, he is known by the name of Bhishma.
One other point that bears mentioning here is that by taking this vow, Bhishma fulfils the final condition of Vasishtha’s curse on Prabhasa – that the elemental will be doomed to live his long life on Earth without knowing the pleasure of a woman’s touch.
(Suggested: 12 Mahabharata Stories From the Bhishma Parva.)
When Bhishma arrives at the royal palace with Satyavati, Shantanu is beside himself with gratitude toward his son, though he is also shocked at the vows that Bhishma had taken.
He accepts the gift of Satyavati, and in return he gives Bhishma a boon that the boy can choose the moment of his death.
Effectively, therefore, Bhishma becomes an immortal with his act: death will not touch him unless he wishes that it should. This is a better deal than what immortals get, because a true immortal cannot die no matter what.
Bhishma uses this boon to remain alive for a long, long time. Even when he is in deep pain, pierced all over his body with arrows on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, he chooses life over death.
He only dies when he deems that the throne of Hastinapur is in safe hands with Yudhishthir. This is after the war of Kurukshetra has been won, and after Bhishma had imparted to Yudhishthir all the wisdom that he possesses.
(Suggested: How did Bhishma die?)
This act of Bhishma sets into motion the entire Mahabharata story as we know it. If Bhishma had not made this drastic promise to Satyavati’s father, Chitrangada and Vichitraveerya may not have even existed.
Bhishma would have become the king after Shantanu, and after marrying the appropriate number of wives, he would have sired enough children to carry his legacy into the next generation.
Of course, all of those boys might have grown into adults and fought for the throne. But that would have been a different story altogether.
A reader may also pause for a moment to ask what the implications are of Bhishma’s vow. The primary aim, of course, is that he should remain childless his whole life. Does that mean he must remain a stranger to all forms of sexual pleasure?
That is the usual implication hidden in the Mahabharata story, but of course it does not have to be that way. Human sexuality is not restrained to unions between fertile men and fertile women. For instance:
- A man may live a rich sexual life in fantasy while remaining celibate in practice.
- A man may seek sexual relationships with women past the age of childbearing, and with women who have been rendered infertile by disease.
- A man may seek sexual relationships with men, and with members of other genders that are incapable of giving birth.
These are only three possibilities by which Bhishma may have honoured the intent of his vow while also releasing himself from the prison of extreme self-denial.
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