Why did Krishna attack Bhishma?

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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 Krishna attack Bhishma?

By the ninth day of the Kurukshetra war, Bhishma has resolved to fighting almost exclusively against the common soldiers of the Pandava army, in a bid to deplete the Pandava fighting forces. Krishna notices that Arjuna is reluctant to fight Bhishma, and in his anger, leaps from his chariot and attacks him himself.

Read on to discover more about why Krishna attacked Bhishma.

(For answers to all Bhishma-related questions, see Bhishma: 14 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

Bhishma surges on Day 3

Krishna attacks – or makes to attack – Bhishma on two separate occasions during the Kurukshetra war. The first of these happens during the late afternoon of Day 3.

Watching his army being pushed back right to the edge of battlefield, Duryodhana goads Bhishma and says, ‘O Grandsire, if you and Drona and Kripacharya fight for me with all your heart, the Pandavas can never win against us. It is my misfortune, alas, that you allow your love for those wretches overpower your sense of duty to the throne.’

Bhishma replies with an angry laugh that the army had retreated for Duryodhana’s sake. ‘But watch me now, O Prince. Let it not be said that Bhishma fought toothlessly against his enemy.’

Saying this, he unleashes a fresh counterattack on the Pandava forces. Such is his speed that common soldiers wonder if he is using some illusion to be present in multiple places at once.

It is now the Pandava army’s turn to flee with fear-stricken wails. Watching the entire crescent formation being pushed back by just one man, Krishna addresses Arjuna.

Krishna almost fights

‘Partha,’ he says, ‘at the beginning of this war you took an oath to kill the sons of Dhritarashtra along with Bhishma and Drona. Now is the time to bring those words to fruition, my friend.

‘Watch how your grandfather fights, in the vein of a man who is still in his sixteenth year. If you do not stand up to him, he will finish the war before sundown today.’

‘Take us to him, O Madhava,’ replies Arjuna. ‘I shall place myself between the grandsire and our fleeing army.’

Arjuna and Bhishma enter into a duel at this point, but it is clear to Krishna that Arjuna is still holding himself back. Arjuna is dithering because he respects the grandsire too much, he thinks. It appears as though that I must step in myself.

Thinking thus, Krishna lets go of the reins and leaps off the chariot. Summoning his discus, he prepares to hurl it at Bhishma, who is by now bowing in respect.

‘Come, O Madhava,’ he says, ‘Present me with the good fortune of dying at your hand. I will achieve dignity worth the wealth of the three worlds, O Janardana, if you just kill me here with the gods watching.’

(Suggested: 12 Mahabharata Stories From the Bhishma Parva.)

Arjuna pulls Krishna back

‘You are the root cause of this great slaughter, Grandsire,’ Krishna calls out to Bhishma. ‘A wise minister who treads on the path to righteousness should restrain a king addicted to evil.

‘Specimens of our race that transgress their duty should be cast away and disowned, not given free rein. Today, you will see the death of Duryodhana at my hands, and indeed, before I get to him, I must go through you!’

But as Krishna makes this speech while standing in front of Bhishma’s chariot, Arjuna runs after him and seizes him by both his hands.

But Krishna is so beside himself with rage that he drags Arjuna with him toward Bhishma, like a gale uprooting a single tree. Arjuna now falls on Krishna’s feet, stopping him with great difficulty at the tenth step.

‘Conquer this anger of yours, O Hrishikesha,’ he pleads. ‘You are the sole refuge of the Pandavas. Would we have had the courage to fight this war if it were not for you? Let it not be said that Krishna had to forswear his oath because of the cowardice of the Pandavas.

‘Hear my words, O Janardana. Put away your discus, and come back to our chariot. I hereby swear on all my brothers and ancestors that I shall not swerve from the path of duty.

‘At your command I shall annihilate the Kurus. But may it never come to be that you should live by a false promise.’

This gratifies Krishna, and Arjuna – true to his word – picks up his form enough to push back Bhishma’s onslaught. The day ends with honours about even.

Afternoon of Day 9

The second of Krishna’s interventions occurs during the afternoon of Day 9, when Drona and Bhishma fight together against the Pandavas. Bhishma, on this occasion, does not hesitate to use celestial weapons on mere men.

The Chedis, the Kasis, the Karushas – fourteen thousand chariots from these three tribes are obliterated at Bhishma’s advance, and it appears to onlookers as if he is the lord of death himself.

In his wake, he leaves fallen masts, mortally wounded soldiers, and a river of blood.

Krishna points his whip at the rampaging Bhishma and says to Arjuna, ‘The time has come, Partha. I have heard you say numerous times that you intend to defeat the grandsire on your own. O Kaunteya, if you ever meant those words to come true, then this is the moment.

‘See how the son of Ganga fights, having cast off all reservations, intent on destroying your entire army. If this goes on for even one more day, O Falguna, your king Yudhishthir will have no one to fight for him.’

Arjuna’s Ambivalence

Once again, in the battle that follows, Krishna gets the feeling that Arjuna is pulling himself back. With a roar of anger – much of it directed at his friend – he leaps off the chariot, whip in hand, and rushes toward Bhishma’s vehicle.

At this sight the entire army of the Kauravas gasps as one, and they say among themselves, ‘Bhishma is as good as slain!’

Bhishma, for his part, like he did on the previous occasion, raises his bow in respect and invites Krishna to attack him. ‘Take my life right this moment, O Madhava,’ he says. ‘Strike me as you please, for I am no more than your slave.’

He then fits an arrow to the string of his bow. ‘But do not assume, O Kesava, that I shall not fight you. It is my duty to protect my king without surrender; if you must kill me, be it so that you must defeat me first!’

But like before, Arjuna runs after Krishna and drags him away by the feet. ‘Do not give way to anger, O Krishna!’ he says. ‘Do not let it be said that the prince of Dwaraka has forsworn his oath.

‘No, let me promise you that I will defeat Bhishma in this battle. Come back to our vehicle, O Sarathi, for I need your guidance now more than ever.’

With his eyes still seething with anger, Krishna returns to Arjuna’s vehicle and takes his seat.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 42: Bhishma Falls.)

Plotting Bhishma’s Downfall

At the end of the ninth day, Krishna leads the discussion of how to stop Bhishma. He makes it clear to Yudhishthir that even one more day of Bhishma fighting in this mood will kill off the entire Panchala and Somaka force.

The Pandavas and Krishna then go to Bhishma’s tent and ask him what they must do to kill him. Magnanimously, Bhishma reminds Yudhishthir that he has taken a vow long back that he would not fight an opponent who is either a woman or has once been a woman.

On their return, Krishna arranges the next morning’s formation such that Shikhandi – the son of Drupada who had once been a maiden – is at the head of it, closely protected on both sides by Arjuna and Bhima.

On the tenth day, Arjuna fights Bhishma from behind Shikhandi, and finally causes the grandsire to fall. Bhishma does not die, but he is rendered ineffective for the rest of the battle.

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