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Painting depicting presentation by Ganga of her son Devavrata (the future Bhishma) to his father, Shantanu. Painted by B.P. Banerjee, 1923.



In the epic Mahabharata, Bhishma (Sanskrit: भीष्‍म) was well known for his pledge of Celibacy. He was the eighth son of Kuru King Shantanu and the goddess Ganga.[1] Bhishma was blessed with wish-long life and was related to both the Pandava and the Kaurava,[2] he was an unparalleled archer and warrior of his time. He also handed down the Vishnu Sahasranama to Yudhishtira[3] when he was on his death bed (of arrows) in the battle of Kurukshetra.


In Sanskrit, the word Bhishma (भीष्म) means 'one who undertakes a terrible vow (bheeshma pratigya) and fulfills it.'

His other names are as follows -

  • Devavrata (देवव्रत)
  • Gangaputra (गंगापुत्र) - son of Ganga
  • Shantanava (शान्तनव) - descendant (son) of Shantanu
  • Pitamaha (पितामह) - paternal grandfather
  • Mahamahima (महामहिम) - great king or the one who is excessively great
  • Gauranga (गौरांग) - the one with fair body
  • Shvetaveera (श्वेतवीर) - a white warrior or the one who is heroic white
  • Ashta Vasu - elemental gods (in previous life)


King Shantanu saw a beautiful woman on the banks of the river Ganges (Ganga) and asked her to marry him, she agreed but with one condition: that Shantanu would not ask any questions about her actions. They married and she later gave birth to a son, but she drowned the child. Shantanu could not ask her the reason, because of his promise, lest she would leave him. One by one, seven sons were born to them and were drowned by Ganga; when Ganga was about to drown the eighth son, Shantanu, devastated, could not restrain himself and confronted her. Finally, Ganga explained to King Shantanu about Brahma's curse given to Mahabhisha and her. Then she told him that their eight children were Eight Vasus who were cursed by Vasishtha to be born on earth as mortal humans however when they pacified him, he limited his curse and told them that they would be freed from this curse within a year of their birth as humans. So she released the seven of them from this life by drowning them all; however the eighth child Bhishma, was cursed to live a long life and to never have a wife or have children. But the sage also gave a boon to him that he would be virtuous, conversant with all the holy scriptures and will be an obedient son to his father. that she will take him to the heavens to train him properly for the King's throne and status. With these words she disappeared along with the child while Shantanu was struck with grief thinking about spending the rest of his life without her.

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

The history behind Bhishma's birth is as follows — once the eight Vasus ("Ashtavasus") visited Vashishta's ashram accompanied by their wives. One of the wives took a fancy to Kamadhenu, Vashishta's wish-bearing cow and asked her husband Prabhasa to steal it from Vashishta. Prabhasa then stole the cow with the help of the others who were all consequently cursed by Vashishta to be born in the world of humans. Upon the Vasus appealing to Vashishta's mercy, the seven Vasus who had assisted in stealing Kamadhenu had their curse mitigated such that they would be liberated from their human birth as soon as they were born; however, Prabhasa being protagonist of the theft, was cursed to endure a longer life on the earth; the curse, however is softened to the extent that he would be one of the most illustrious men of his time. It was this Prabhasa also called Vasu Dyaus who took the birth as Bhishma.[4]

After Devavrata was born, his mother Ganga took him to different realms, where he was brought up and trained by many eminent sages (Mahabharata Shanti Parva, section 38).

  • Brihaspati: The son of Angiras and the preceptor of the Devas taught Devavrata 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.
  • Vashishtha, the Brahmarshi and Chyavana, the son of Bhrigu taught the Vedas and the Vedangas to Devavrata.
  • Sanatkumara: The eldest son of Lord Brahma taught Devavrata the mental and spiritual sciences.
  • Markandeya: The immortal son of Mrikandu of Bhrigu's race who acquired everlasting youth from Lord Shiva taught Devavrata in the duties of the Yatis.
  • Parashurama: The son of Jamadagni of Bhrigu's race. Parashurama trained Bhishma in warfare.
  • Indra: The king of the Devas. He bestowed celestial weapons on Bhishma.

Vow of Bhishma[edit]

Bhishma taking his bhishama pratigya

Originally named Devavratha, he became known as Bhishma after he took the bhishamna pratignya ('terrible oath') — the vow of lifelong Brahmacharya and of service to whoever sat on the throne of his father.

Having joined his father's court, Bhishma was easily confirmed as the heir apparent. Having undergone a successful military campaign, and being the child of a goddess himself, he was easily confirmed as the heir apparent and was loved by all in the city. Shantanu was proud of his son and content that the future was secure. However, Shantanu had slowly been falling in love with a fisherwoman, Satyavati, who operated the boats crossing one of Hastinapur's rivers; when Shantanu approached for her hand in marriage, Satyavati's father refused to give his daughter's hand to Shantanu unless Shantanu would proclaim her children as his heirs. However, doing so would be against the merit-based hereditary rules of Bharat, and Shantanu had already promised the throne to Bhishma. So, Shantanu sorrowfully had to reject the offer; this made Shantanu despondent, and upon discovering the reason for his father's despondency,[2] Devavratha sought out the girl's father and ceded his claim to the throne. At this, Satyavati's father retorted that even if Devavratha gave up his claim to the throne, Devavratha's children would still claim the throne. Devavratha then took the vow of lifelong celibacy, thus sacrificing his 'crown-prince' title and denying himself the pleasures of conjugal love, his father granted him the boon of Ichcha Mrityu (control over his own death — he could choose the time of his death, making him immortal till his chosen time of death). Criticism of King Shantanu from his subjects as to why he removed Bhishma from the title of the crown prince, as he was so capable, abounded. There was worry about the nobility of Shantanu's unborn children, now promised the throne. Hearing this, Bhishma said it was his decision and his father should not be blamed as Shantanu had never promised anything to Satyavati's father; the prime minister then asked who would be held responsible if the future crown prince isn't capable enough. Bhishma then took another vow that he would always see his father's image in whomever sat on the King's throne, and would thus serve him faithfully.[2]

Years later, in the process of finding a bride for his half-brother, the young king Vichitravirya, Bhishma abducted princesses Amba, Ambika and Ambalika of Kashi from the assemblage of suitors at their swaymvara. Salwa, the ruler of Saubala, and Amba (the eldest princess) were in love; Salwa attempted to stop the abduction but was soundly beaten. Upon reaching Hastinapura, Amba confided in Bhishma that she wished to wed Salwa. Bhishma then sent her back to Salwa, who, bitter from his humiliating defeat at Bhishma's hands, turned her down, she then retired to Bhishma for Vichitravirya who refused to accept citing the rules that what once given cannot be taken back. Amva then sorrowfully, repair to an asylum of ascetics out of city, she then explains everything to them. They made her meet with Rama. Hearing the words of the princess, Rama asked her motive; as per the words of ascetics, she asked him to slay that Bhishma of great vows, who is the root of her calamity.[3][5]

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

Amba sought refuge with Parasurama, who ordered Bhishma to marry Amba, telling Bhishma it was his duty. Bhishma politely refused, saying that he was ready to give up his life at the command of his teacher but not the promise that he had made. Both mocks each other and upon the refusal, Parasurama called him for a fight at Kurukshetra. At the battlegrounds, while Bhishma was on a chariot, Parasurama was on foot. Bhishma requested Parasurama to also take a chariot and armor so that Bhishma would not have an unfair advantage. Parasurama blessed Bhishma with the power of divine vision and asked him to look again; when Bhishma looked at his guru with the divine eyesight, he saw the Earth as Parasurama's chariot, the four Vedas as the horses, the Upanishads as the reins, Vayu (wind) as the Charioteer and the Vedic goddesses Gayatri, Savitri, and Saraswati as his armor. Bhishma got down from the chariot and 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, they fought for 23 days, each knocking out other at a time, used even the celestial weapons, but each was too powerful to defeat the other. Their battle lasted for 23 days, but on 22nd night, he asked the gods to show him a way to vanquish Rama, at night. In his dream, his ancestors came and provided him the knowledge of Praswapa weapon, not known to any persons on earth.[5]

On 23rd day of battle, when battle didn't concluded, Bhishma attempted to use the Prashwapastra against Parashurama; this weapon was not known to Parasurama and would put the afflicted to sleep in the battlefield. Before Bhishma could release it, however, a voice from the sky warned him that "if he uses this weapon it would be a great insult towards his Guru." Pitrs then appeared and obstructed the chariot of Parashurama, forbidding him from fighting any longer. At the behest of the divine sage Narada and the gods, Parashurama ended the conflict and the battle was declared in the favour of Bhishma by Gods.[6]

In another version, Parashurama himself stopped the fight after twenty-three days, worried that the further use of powerful weapons may lead to the destruction of the world.

Parashurama narrated the events to Amba and told her to seek Bhishma's protection. However, Amba refused to listen to Parashurama's advice and left angrily declaring that she would achieve her objective by asceticism, her predicament unchanged, she did severe austerities to please Shiva. She was cursed by Ganga, during her penances, when she didn't listen to her words. Lord Shiva assured her that she would be born as a man named (Shikhandi) in her next birth (and still she would recall her past) and could be instrumental in Bhishma's death, thus satisfying her vow, she then made funeral pyre of woods, on the banks of the Yamuna, setting fire to it herself entered that blazing fire with wrath, uttering-'I do so for Bhishma's destruction!'[7]

In The Kurukshetra War[edit]

Arjuna fight Bhishma

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 renowned Gurus. 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.

Duryodhana approached Bhishma one night and accused him of not fighting the battle to his full strength because of his affection for the Pandavas; the angry Bhishma took a vow that either he will kill Arjuna or will make Lord Krishna break his promise of not picking up any weapons during the war. On the next day there was an intense battle between Bhishma and Arjuna. Although Arjuna was very powerful, he was not fighting seriously and his heart was not in it to hurt Bhishma. Bhishma fired arrows such that Arjuna and Krishna were both injured; that angered Sri 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 making Bhishma also retreat.

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 death) 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, it is said that Ganga herself rose to quench her son's thirst.[5]


Bhisma on arrows bed

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 path of Dharma, even though his circumstances because of his promise, 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.[8] 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.[9][10]

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

In popular culture[edit]

Films & 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|date=January 2019}

In Telugu cinema, two films were made; the first film on Bhishma was made in 1944 directed by Chitrapu Narayana Rao. Jandhyala Gourinatha Sastry played the role of Bhishma. B. A. Subba Rao made a film in 1962 titled Bhishma. The title role was played by N. T. Rama Rao.[citation needed]

Bhishma's character was played by Mukesh Khanna in the B.R. Chopra's Mahabharat, one of the most successful Hindi television series. Aarav Chowdhary also played the role of Bhishma in Star Plus' Mahabharat, he is portrayed by Naved Aslam in Sony TV's Suryaputra Karn. Ronit Roy also portrayed it in Kahaani Hamaaray Mahaabhaarat Ki.[citation needed]

Modern References

Honour in Modern Times

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.[11][12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Manish Verma (2000). Fasts and Festivals of India. Diamond Pocket Books (P) Ltd. pp. 73–. ISBN 978-81-7182-076-4. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
  2. ^ a b c "Bhishma". Encyclopedia for Epics of Ancient India. Retrieved 17 April 2012.
  3. ^ a b Mahabharatha
  4. ^ Gopal, Madan (1990). K.S. Gautam (ed.). India through the ages. Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India. pp. 77–78.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Vyasa, Krishna-Dwaipayana; Ganguli, Kisari Mohan (1883–1896). The Mahabharata. Sacred Texts.
  7. ^ Kisari Mohan Ganguli. "SECTION CLXXXIX". The Mahabharata, Book 5: Udyoga Parva.
  8. ^ Bhishma Panchaka vrata
  9. ^ "Bhishma Ashtami". Drik Panchang. Retrieved 24 January 2019.
  10. ^ Bhishma Ashtami
  11. ^ Robert Jackson (1 March 2007). Tanks and Armored Fighting Vehicles. Parragon Incorporated. pp. 295–. ISBN 978-1-4054-8664-4. Retrieved 24 June 2012.
  12. ^ 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.

External links[edit]