Mahabharata character
Statue of Bhishma.jpg
Statue of Bhishma standing on a chariot.
In-universe information
Aliases Devavrata, Gauranga, Gangaputra, Pitamaha
Gender Male
Weapon Bow & arrows, sword, mace
Home Hastinapur

Bhishma (Sanskrit: भीष्‍म, IAST: Bhīṣma, lit. 'terrible'), also known as Pitamaha, Gangaputra and Devavrata, was an elder statesman of Hastinapur and one of the most powerful warriors in the epic Mahabharata. He was the eighth son of the Kuru King Shantanu and the river goddess Ganga. He was related to both the Pandavas and the Kauravas through his half-brother, Vichitravirya.

Originally named Devavrata, he became known as Bhishma after he took the bhishma pratigya ('terrible oath') — the vow of lifelong Brahmacharya (celibacy) and of service to whosoever sat on the throne of his father. In return, he was blessed to live as long as he wanted. Bhishma was trained by Parshurama, an avatar of the god Vishnu. After he abducted the princesses of Kashi for Vichitravirya, Amba the eldest amoung them, became his rival and killed herself to take revenge from him in her next life. Bhishma played a very important part in the political affairs of the Kuru kingdom and participated in the Kurukshetra War from the side of Kauravas. On the eleventh day of the war, the Pandava prince Arjuna, with the help of Amba's reincarnation Shikhandi, pierced Bhishma with numerous arrows and paralysed him on a bed of arrows. After spending fifty one nights on the arrow bed, Bhishma left his body on the Uttarayana (winter solstice). Before his death, he handed down the Vishnu Sahasranama to the emperor Yudhishtira.

Bhishma has a large significance in the Hindu culture. Each year his death anniversary is celebrated as Bhishma Ashtami, which falls on the eighth lunar day of the Shukla (light) half of Magha (January-February) month.

Etymology and epithets [ edit ]

According to Monier Monier-Williams, the word Bhishma (भीष्म) means 'terrible', 'horrible', 'fearful' or 'fierce'. The word is also used as an epithet of Rudra, the fierce Vedic god, as well a Rakshasa.[1] In the epic, Devavrata received this as he undertook a fierce or terrible vow (Bhishma pratigya) and fulfilled it.[2][3] Bhishma was given the name Devavrata (देवव्रत) at his birth, meaning one who is devoted to Gods.[4]

As Bhishma was the only surviving son of Ganga, he was given many epithets which mean 'son of Ganga' — Gangaputra (गंगापुत्र), Gang (गंग), Gangasuta (गंगासूत) and Gangeya. The word Gangadatta (गंगादत्त) means given by Ganga.[5] Patronymics of Bhishma include Shantanava (शान्तनव), Shantanuputra, Shantanusuta and Shantanuja.[6] Bhishma was also referred as:

  • Gauranga (गौरांग) – the one with fair body
  • Shvetaveera (श्वेतवीर) – a white warrior or the one who is heroic white and has all weapons in white color
  • Ashta Vasu (अष्ट वसु) – elemental gods (in previous life)
  • Bharatavanshi (भरतवंशी) - descendant of Bharata
  • Pitamaha (पितामह)- Grandfather (also known as Bhishma Pitamaha; called by Pandavas and Kauravas)[6]

Birth and early life [ edit ]

Shantanu stops Ganga from drowning their eighth child, who later was known as Bhishma.

Bhishma's birth and youth is mainly narrated in the Adi Parva book of the epic. He was the only surviving son of Shantanu, a king belonging to the lunar dynasty, and his first wife Ganga, a river goddess. It is believed that he was the avatar of a Vasu named Dyu, alias Prabhasa.[7]

According to the legend, Shantanu, the youngest son of the king Pratipa and the king of Kuru kingdom, was on a hunting trip, when he saw a beautiful woman on the banks of the river Ganga. He fell in love with her and asked her hand in marriage. The lady agreed to his proposal but with one condition that he will never question her actions; and if this condition was broken, she would abandon him. Shantanu accepted it and lived a happy marital life with her. However, when a child was born, the queen used to drown him in the river Ganga. One by one, seven sons were born and drowned, while Shantanu remained silent because of his commitment. When she was about to throw the eighth child into the river, Shantanu, unable to control himself, stopped her and confronted about her actions. After hearing Shantanu's harsh words, the woman revealed herself to be the goddess Ganga and justified her actions and narrated the following story.[8][2]

Once the celestial Vasus and their wives were enjoying themselves in the forest, when the wife of Dyu spotted an excellent cow and asked her husband to steal it. The cow was Nandini, daughter of the wish fulfilling cow Surabhi, and was owned by the sage Vashishtha. With the help of his brothers, Dyu tried to steal it but Vashishtha caught them and cursed them to be born as mortals and suffer a miserable life. Upon their pleading, Vashishta showed mercy and told the other seven Vasus that they will be liberated soon after their birth. However Dyo being the protagonist of the theft was cursed to endure a longer life on the earth. Before the birth of her sons, Ganga was requested to kill the seven children soon after their birth.[9][2] Hearing this, Shantanu was filled with grief and regrets and Ganga decided to abandon him as her condition was broken. Before disappearing, she promised Shantanu to return his heir.[8]

Painting depicting presentation by Ganga of her son Devavrata to his father, Shantanu

Ganga named her son Devavrata and took him to different loka (realms), where he was brought up and trained by many eminent sages.[10][11][12]

  • Brihaspati: The son of Angiras and the preceptor of the Devas taught the duties of kings (Dandaneeti), or political science and other Shastras.
  • Shukracharya: The son of Bhrigu and the preceptor of the Asuras also taught Devavrata in political science and other branches of knowledge.
  • The sages Vashishtha and Chyavana taught the Vedas and Vedangas to Devavrata.
  • Sanatkumara: The eldest son of the god Brahma taught Devavrata the mental and spiritual sciences.
  • Markandeya: The immortal son of Mrikandu of Bhrigu's race who acquired everlasting youth from the god Shiva taught Devavrata in the duties of the Yatis.
  • Parashurama: The son of Jamadagni trained Bhishma in warfare.
  • Indra: The king of the Devas. He bestowed celestial weapons on Bhishma.

Years later, Shantanu was roaming on the banks of the Ganga and observed that the water of the river had turned shallow. He saw a young man blocking the water currents with a dam made up of arrows. Shantanu recognised his son because of the similarities and begged Ganga to return him. Ganga appeared in a youthful form and handed her son to Shantanu as per her promise. The young Devavrata was known as Gangadatta as he was handed over by Ganga.[13]

Bhishma Pratigya — the terrible vow [ edit ]

Devarata taking his oath, painting by Raja Ravi Varma

Devavrata was made the hier and loved by the citizens because he was a demigod as well as a very capable ruler. Meanwhile, Shantanu fell in love with a fisherwoman named Satyavati, who operated the boats crossing the Yamuna. When he asked her hand in marriage, her father told that he would only agree if he promised to put the son born to Satyavati as the heir. Shantanu rejected the offer as he had already promised the throne to Devavrata and returned to the palace. Devavrata noticed his father's sorrow and discovered the reason behind it from a minister.

He immediately rushed to the house of the fisherman and requested him to give Satyavati, but the fisherman repeated his condition. For the sake of his father's pleasure and happiness, Devavrata ceded his rights to the throne. However Satyavati's father was not assured as he claimed that Devavrata's children might dispute his grandson's claim. To satisfy him, Devavrata took the vow of lifelong Brahmacharya (celibacy), thus denying himself the pleasures of love.

The celestials showered flowers from heaven and he came to be known as 'Bhishma' as he took a terrible vow. With the consent of the fisherman, Bhishma took Satyavati to his father on a chariot and informed him about his vows. A loving father Shantanu gave him a boon of Iccha Mrityu, the control over the time of his death.[10][14][15] Shantanu and Satyavati soon married and two children - Chitrangada and Vichitravirya were born.

Role during the crises on Kuru kingdom [ edit ]

Bhishma abducts princesses Amba, Ambika and Ambalika from the assemblage of suitors at their swayamvara.

After the death of his father, Bhishma played a major role in the affairs of the Kuru kingdom. He managed the kingdom when there were succession crises. He also arranged the marriage of his nephews and tried to bring peace between his grand- nephews, the Kauravas and the Pandavas.

The text Harivamsa mentions that during the mourning period after Shantanu's death, Bhishma killed Ugrayudha Paurava, a statesman of Panchala kingdom who lusted for Satyavati and tried to buy her with wealth. According to the Mahabharata, Chitrangada was crowned as the king, however he was soon killed by a Gandharva (celestial musician). After his death, Vichitravirya, who was too young to rule, was crowned as the king by Bhishma but the actual control of the kingdom was under Satyavati till he reached adulthood. Bhishma aided Satyavati during that time.

When Vichitravirya grew up, Satyavati asked Bhishma to bring the princesses of Kashi kingdom, who were choosing their spouse in a Swayamvara (self choice ceremony). Following her orders, Bhishma abducted the princesses Amba, Ambika and Ambalika by force from the event. Salva, the ruler of Saubala and lover of Amba, attempted to stop Bhishma, but failed. Upon reaching Hastinapura, Ambika and Ambalika agreed to marry Vichitravirya, while Amba told Bhishma about her love. After learning about her feelings, Bhishma conceded and safely sent her to Salva.

Hatred of Amba and battle with Parashurama [ edit ]

The sage Narada and the gods stop Bhishma's battle with Parashurama.

The Udyoga Parva further narrates about Amba and Bhishma's fight with his teacher Parashurama. When Amba reached Salwa Kingdom, Shalva rejected her as she was won by another man. A variant suggests that Bhishma then asked Vichitravirya to marry her, but he also refused to marry her as she loved another man. With no one to accept her, Amba blamed Bhishma for her misery and wanted revenge from him. After she was advised by some sages, she met Parasurama, Bhishma's teacher and successfully convinced him in giving vow to slay Bhishma.[16]

Parasurama went to Kurukshetra and called Bhishma. Bhishma reached there and showed respect. Parasurama ordered him to marry Amba, telling that it was his duty. However, he denied it because of his vow, making Parasurama furious. An intense battle began with both protecting their words.[note 1] They fought for twenty three days, each using the celestial weapons. Ganga tried to stop them, but her efforts were worthless.[16] On twenty fourth day of battle, Bhishma attempted to use the Prashwapastra against Parashurama, but the divine sage Narada and the gods intervened and showed their concern over the use of powerful weapons which could destroy the world. Parashurama ended the conflict and the battle was declared a stalemate. After hearing the events, Amba did severe austerities to please the god Shiva and was assured by the god that she would be reborn and become instrumental in Bhishma's death. Satisfied, she then made funeral pyre of woods and killed herself.[17]

Birth and marriage of nephews [ edit ]

After Vichitravirya was crowned as the king of Hastinapura, he died because of tuberculosis. With no one continue the dynasty, Satyavati persuaded Bhishma to marry the widows of Vichitravirya (following the practice of levirate marriage)[18] and rule as the king. However Bhishma refused the proposal and reminded his vow to her. He then suggested that Niyoga (a practice in which another person is hired to impregnate a woman, whose husband is deceased or impotent) could be performed.[19] Satyavati revealed her premarital born son, Vyasa, and called him to impregnated her daughter in laws.[20][21][22] After Dhritarashtra and Pandu were born, Bhishma trained them to become powerful warriors.[23]

When Dhritrashtra was ready to get married, Bhishma and Satyavati started to look for an eligible bride. Bhishma then heard about Gandhāri, princess of Gandhara. He arrived Gandhara and asked Subala for his daughter, who was blessed to have hundred sons. Gandhari's brother Shakuni objected his sister's marriage with a blind, but had no choice. Gandhari, in order to feel the same pain as her husband, blind folded herself. The Mahabharata describes that this incident developed Shakuni's hatred towards Bhishma and Hastinapur.[24][25]

Although Dhritrashtra was the eldest, Pandu was made the king of Hastinapur due to Dhritrashtra's blindness. Pandu married Kunti but after his military campaign, Shalya and Bhishma decided to get him married to Madri for political reasons. One day, Pandu killed sage Kidama and got his infamous curse.[26]

Training of Kuru princes [ edit ]

After the death of Pandu, Kunti returned to Hastinapur with her five sons, PandavasYudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva. Dhritrashtra's sons (Kauravas) were not pleased by the arrival of their cousins. Satyavati, along her daughter in laws, left Hastinapur for penance, leaving Bhishma with the responsibility of the kingdom. One day, the princes were playing with a ball, but it fell into a well. They were unable to take it out, until a Brahmin warrior, Drona, helped them using his impressive skills. Bhishma was impressed with the Brahmin's skills and hired him as the teacher of the princes.[27]

The Kurukshetra War [ edit ]

Pandavas meet Pitamaha Bhishma before the war to seek his blessings.
Duryodhana accuses Bhishma for showing partiality towards the Pandavas.

In the great battle at Kurukshetra, Bhishma was the supreme commander of the Kaurava forces for ten days. He fought reluctantly on the side of the Kauravas. Bhishma was one of the most powerful warriors of his time and in history. He acquired his prowess and invincibility from being the son of the sacred Ganga and by being a student of Lord Parashurama. Despite being about five generations old, Bhishma was too powerful to be defeated by any warrior alive at that time. Every day, he slew at least 10,000 soldiers and about a 1,000 rathas. At the beginning of the war, Bhishma vowed not to kill any of the Pandavas, as he loved them, being their grand-uncle. Duryodhana often confronted Bhishma alleging that he was not actually fighting for the Kaurava camp as he wouldn't kill any of the Pandavas. He also did not allow any of the Kauravas to be killed in the war, as he loved all his grand-nephews and wanted a peace negotiation.

Arjuna fights Bhishma

Duryodhana approached Bhishma one night and accused him of not fighting the battle to his full strength because of his affection for the Pandavas. On the next day there was an intense battle between Bhishma and Arjuna. Although Arjuna was very powerful, he was not fighting seriously as his heart was not in it to hurt his beloved grandsire Bhishma. Bhishma fired arrows such that Arjuna and Krishna were both injured. That angered Krishna who took vow of not raising a weapon in the war, lifted a chariot wheel and threatened Bhishma. Arjuna stopped Lord Krishna. Arjuna convinced Krishna to return to the chariot and put down the wheel, promising to fight with all his might and stop Bhishma. Thus Bhishma fulfilled his vow and then Arjuna used stronger weapons, slightly injuring Bhishma. Bhishma and Arjuna's duel was praised by the gods themselves as they watched over it from the sky.

An enraged Krishna attacks Bhishma, while Arjuna tries to calm him down.

The war was thus locked in a stalemate. As the Pandavas mulled over this situation, Krishna advised them to visit Bhishma himself and request him to suggest a way out of this stalemate. Bhishma loved the Pandavas and knew that he stood as an obstacle in their path to victory and so when they visited Bhishma, he gave them a hint as to how they could defeat him. He told them that if faced by one who had once been of the opposite gender, he would lay down his arms and fight no longer.

Later Krishna told Arjuna how he could bring down Bhishma, through the help of Shikhandi. The Pandavas were not agreeable to such a ploy, as by using such tactics they would not be following the path of Dharma, but Krishna suggested a clever alternative. And thus, on the next day, the tenth day of battle Shikhandi accompanied Arjuna on the latter's chariot and they faced Bhishma who did not fire arrows at Shikhandi. He was then felled in battle by Arjuna, pierced by innumerable arrows. With Sikhandhi in front, Bhishma did not even look at that direction, Arjuna shot arrows at Bhishma, piercing his entire body. Thus, as was preordained (Mahadeva's boon to Amba that she would be the cause of Bhishma's fall) Shikhandi, that is, Amba reincarnated was the cause of Bhishma's fall. As Bhishma fell, his whole body was held above the ground by the shafts of Arjuna's arrows which protruded from his back, and through his arms and legs. Seeing Bhishma lying on such a bed of arrows humbled even the gods who watched from the heavens in reverence. They silently blessed the mighty warrior. When the young princes of both armies gathered around him, inquiring if there was anything they could do, he told them that while his body lay on the bed of arrows above the ground, his head hung unsupported. Hearing this, many of the princes, both Kaurava and the Pandava alike brought him pillows of silk and velvet, but he refused them. He asked Arjuna to give him a pillow fit for a warrior. Arjuna then removed three arrows from his quiver and placed them underneath Bhishma's head, the pointed arrow tips facing upwards. To quench the war veteran's thirst, Arjuna shot an arrow into the earth, and a jet stream of water rose up and into Bhishma's mouth.[citation needed] It is said that Ganga herself rose to quench her son's thirst.[16]

Death [ edit ]

Bhishma on the bed of arrows

After the war, while on his deathbed (arrow bed), he gave deep and meaningful instructions to Yudhishthira on statesmanship and the duties of a king. Bhishma always gave priority to Dharma. He always walked in the path of Dharma, despite his state because of the vow, he was supposed to forcefully follow the orders of his king Dhritharashtra, which were mostly Adharma, he was totally upset. He was sure he must let dharma win and Pandavas win, but the way he led the war and stayed silent were his sins in a way and he paid for it with the bed of arrows. Finally, Bhishma gave up the fight, focusing his life force and breath, sealing the wounds, and waiting for the auspicious moment to give up his body on the arrow bed. He did wait for about 58 nights for the winter solstice or first day of Uttarayana to give up his body on the arrow bed. Mahabharata states that he attained salvation after his death. He was granted the Maatru Lok (which is considered even above Swarga, the heaven). Magha (month) Shukla Ashtami marks the death anniversary of Bhishma Pitamah(Father), the day being known as Bhishma Ashtami. Hindus observe Ekodishta Śrāddha for him on this day, since many generations, and can only be performed by those whose fathers are not alive. Bhishma Panchaka vrata(fast) is observed in all Vishnu temples, starting from Bhishma Ashtami, for five days till Bhishma Dwadasi.[citation needed] People believe that they will be blessed with a son, having the steadfast qualities of Bhishma if they observe these holy rituals on the river banks.[28] It is also said that those who will perform this fast will live a happy life and attain salvation after their death.

Bhishma on bed of arrows depicted in Angkor Wat
Yudhishthira with Bhishma, from the Razm-namah, by Fattu, 1598

In popular culture [ edit ]

Films and Television [ edit ]

His life has been made into many films in different Indian languages. The first silent film was made in 1922. During the talkie period, the first film was made in Hindi (1937). It was followed by a Bengali film in 1942 directed by Jyotish Bannerjee. Jahar Ganguli played the title role.[citation needed]

Modern references [ edit ]

The tank T-90 Main Battle Tank, one of the world's most advanced MBTs acquired from Russia for the Indian Army is named after Bhishma.[29][30]

See also [ edit ]

Notes [ edit ]

  1. ^ Before the fight, Bhishma sought the blessings of Parashurama to protect his dharma, along with permission to battle against his teacher. Pleased, Parashurama blessed him and advised him to protect his vow as Parasurama himself had to fight to uphold his word as given to Amba.

Citations [ edit ]

  1. ^ Monier-Williams 1872, p. 712.
  2. ^ a b c Mani 1975, p. 135.
  3. ^ Long 2020, p. 91.
  4. ^ Monier-Williams 1872, p. 432.
  5. ^ Gandhi 2004, p. 115.
  6. ^ a b Mani 1975, p. 137.
  7. ^ Mani 1975, p. 134.
  8. ^ a b Ganguly, Adi Parva: Section 98
  9. ^ Ganguly, Adi Parva: section 99
  10. ^ a b Ganguly, Adi Parva: section 100
  11. ^ Ganguly, Shanti Parva: section 38
  12. ^ "Why Devavrata came to be known as Bhishma?". Zee News. 12 April 2017. Retrieved 29 August 2020.
  13. ^ Narasimhan, Chakravarthi V. (1999). The Mahābhārata: An English Version Based on Selected Verses. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. ISBN 978-81-208-1673-2.
  14. ^ Ireland, Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and (1879). Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Cambridge University Press for the Royal Asiatic Society.
  15. ^ "Devavrata's oath". The Hindu. 7 July 2016. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 29 August 2020.
  16. ^ a b c Bhanu, Sharada (1997). Myths and Legends from India – Great Women. Chennai: Macmillan India Limited. pp. 30–8. ISBN 0-333-93076-2.
  17. ^ "Mahabharata Story By Rajaji - Page 5 | Mahabharata Stories, Summary and Characters from Mahabharata". Retrieved 29 August 2020.
  18. ^ Meyer pp. 165-6
  19. ^ Ganguli, Kisari Mohan (1883–1896). "SECTION CIV". The Mahabharata: Book 1: Adi Parva. Sacred texts archive.
  20. ^ Choppra, Kusum (17 June 2017). "Satyavati, the feminist who stood up to patriarchy". DNA India. Retrieved 26 October 2020.
  21. ^ Ganguli, Kisari Mohan (1883–1896). "SECTION CIII". The Mahabharata: Book 1: Adi Parva. Sacred texts archive.
  22. ^ Meyer p. 165
  23. ^ Mani 1975.
  24. ^ Srivastava, Diwaker Ikshit (11 December 2017). Decoding the Metaphor Mahabharata. One Point Six Technology Pvt Ltd. ISBN 978-93-5201-000-4.
  25. ^ "The Mahabharata, Book 1: Adi Parva: Sambhava Parva: Section CX". Retrieved 1 September 2020.
  26. ^ Debalina (20 December 2019). Into the Myths: A Realistic Approach Towards Mythology and Epic. Partridge Publishing. ISBN 978-1-5437-0576-8.
  27. ^ Dalal, Roshen (18 April 2014). Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide. Penguin UK. ISBN 978-81-8475-277-9.
  28. ^ "Bhishma Ashtami". Drik Panchang. Retrieved 24 January 2019.
  29. ^ Robert Jackson (1 March 2007). Tanks and Armored Fighting Vehicles. Parragon Incorporated. pp. 295–. ISBN 978-1-4054-8664-4. Retrieved 24 June 2012.
  30. ^ S. Muthiah (2008). Madras, Chennai: A 400-year Record of the First City of Modern India. Palaniappa Brothers. pp. 288–. ISBN 978-81-8379-468-8. Retrieved 24 June 2012.

References [ edit ]

External links [ edit ]

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