Bhisma was the ‘grandfather’ of the Kauravas and the Pandavas in the great Hindu epic The Mahabharata. He was a well-known and respected ksatriya and ascetic who on his deathbed taught lessons of dharma. Bhisma was regarded as the mortal form of one of the eight gods called Vasus. In the epic, these gods offended the sage Vasistha, who in turn cursed them to be re-incarnated on earth (Brodbeck and Black 183). There were several versions of what the Vasus did to incur this curse; Mother of Bhisma, the river goddess Ganga’s version was that Vasistha had a superior cow and the eight Vasus stole this cow and its calf, while the Vasus’ own version portrays them much more innocently and only states that they offended him in some way (Brodbeck 158). Also in Ganga’s version Dyaus, the ringleader of the Vasus and of the cow thievery, must survive because he was cursed specifically, but in the Vasus version all eight were cursed equally. In Ganga’s version she requested that one son survive, and the Vasus agreed only if he be childless; this eighth son, Dyaus, is Bhisma. The father of Bhisma and his seven brothers was king Samtanu, who was the reincarnation of the earthly king Mahabhisa. Mahabhisa’s virtues and dharmic life secured him a spot in heaven, but once there his audacious display of feelings toward the Goddess Ganga caused Brahma to sentence him to another life as a mortal on earth, and he was reborn as Samtanu. Meanwhile the eight Vasus approached the Goddess Ganga and urged her to embrace an earthly incarnation as their mother, with Samtanu as the father. Ganga was pleased to have a chance to continue the love between her and Samtanu that had begun in heaven, and so she agreed (Brodbeck and Black 183).
Once on Earth Samtanu met Ganga, they fell in love and he proposed to her. Ganga accepted only on the condition that no matter what she did, even if it displeased king Samtanu, she must never be stopped, questioned, or spoken to harshly. If Samtanu followed this prenuptial agreement, they would live in happiness, but if he broke the agreement she would forsake him and leave. Samtanu agreed to these prenuptial stipulations and the couple gave birth to seven sons, each of which Ganga immediately drowned. In keeping with his previous agreement Samtanu said nothing to Ganga about her murder of their sons, until she tried to drown their eighth son, when he finally spoke against her in the hopes of saving this son. Because Samtanu had now broken their prenuptial agreement, Ganga told him that she was leaving him and taking their eighth son with her, but that she would return him to Samtanu later; she also explained the curse upon the eight Vasus and why she had to drown each of their previous sons (Brodbeck 158).
Years passed and Bhisma returned to his father, who wished to be remarried to Satyavati, daughter of the king of the fisherfolk. Satyavati’s father refused to allow their marriage, because no matter how many children they produced together, Bhisma, or his children, would always be rightful heirs to the throne. In order to enable his father to remarry, Bhisma gave up his right to the throne and vowed to be celibate, meaning he would never succeed to the throne and he would never have any children who would one day do likewise (Hill 199). This oath is the reason for his name, Bhisma, which means ‘he of the terrible oath’. One good thing that came from this oath was that it so impressed the gods that they granted Bhisma the boon that he would be able to choose his own death. This gave him some power over his own life and also served to make him an unparalleled warrior, as he could not be killed.
Samtanu and Satyavati had two sons, the first, Citrangada died young, and so the second son, Vicitravirya became king. Bhisma abducted 3 Kasi princesses, Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, as wives for his brother, from an svayamvara hosted by the king of Kasi. Amba begged Bhisma to let her go back, as she was in love with another man, Salva, and Bhisma listened to her pleas and let her go. She soon discovered though that Salva would not have her back, as she could be impure from spending time with another man (Brodbeck and Black, 20). She returned to Bhisma and asked to either marry him or his brother, but he refused (Brodbeck and Black 204-205). According to Amba, Bhisma had ruined her life by spoiling her marital prospects and she vowed to exact revenge on him. For fourteen years the princess performed austerities to the gods until she was granted a boon, for which she chose Bhisma’s defeat. Siva swore that she would be reborn as a great warrior in the house of Drupada and would destroy Bhisma in battle. Amba then gathered firewood, made a giant pyre and committed suicide by stepping into it, saying “For Bhisma’s death” (Hill 160).
Seven years later King Vicitravirya died without fathering any sons between his two wives, Ambika and Ambalika. Bhisma should have been the one to inseminate his half brothers widows, so as to carry on their patrilineage, but he refused because of his vow of celibacy. At this time Satyavati revealed that she had a premarital son, Vyasa, and he was called upon to inseminate Victravirya’s widows, and the resulting children and grandchildren were the Kauravas and the Pandavas, and this is how, although celibate, Bhisma is referred to and known as the grandfather or grandsire of the Kauravas and Pandavas (Brodbeck 167).
Years later, the Kauravas and the Pandavas waged war over which side of the family were the rightful rulers of the kingdom. In this war, the great battle at Kurukshetra, Bhisma fought on the side of the Kauravas. For ten days Bhisma commanded the Kauravas forces, slaughtering many. Krsna stated that it was Arjuna who should fulfill the task of killing Bhisma (Hill 145), but because Bhisma was an unparalleled warrior and could choose the time of his own death this was an impossible task. At this point Yudhisthira remembered that Bhisma had sworn to reveal to the Pandavas how he could be killed when the chosen time for his death arrived. And so the Pandavas and Krsna went to Bhisma and were instructed to have Arjuna attack him from behind Sikhandin, because Bhisma would not attack a woman (Brodbeck and Black 193). After her death Amba, who had sworn revenge on Bhisma for kidnapping her, was reborn as the female Sikhandin to Drupada, but with the help of a yaksa she became a male, while the yaksa became female, but they would switch back upon Sikhandin’s death (Brodbeck and Black 217). Together Arjuna and Sikhandin would attack Bhisma. Because Bhisma knew that Sikhandin was in essence a woman, he laid down his arms and Arjuna and Sikhandin both skewered him with arrows (Brodbeck and Black 218).
After being pierced with arrows, Bhisma laid on a veritable bed of arrows, as he was skewered with so many arrows that not one part of his body touched the ground, and for many weeks he spoke and gave lessons on dharma, until choosing to die on the winter solstice, long after the great Bharata war ended (Brodbeck and Black, 190). During this time Bhisma gave lessons on things such as gift giving to cleanse the soul of sin (Hill 54-55), dharma and kinship (Hill 115) and lessons on the evils of time, and the expiation of sin (Hill 217). Finally when he was done dispensing his dharmic teachings, Bhisma engaged in yoga and released each limb of his body, freeing them of arrows and healing them. Once his entire body had been freed his soul split through his head and rose into the sky, and thus Bhisma chose his own death (Brodbeck and Black 190).
Today in modern Hindu society, Bhisma is celebrated on “the eighth lunar day of the light half of magha” (Verma 73), which falls either in January or February. This is regarded as the day on which Bhisma chose to die, and on which his soul journeyed up through the sky and into heaven. Since Bhisma did not marry or have any sons it is the Hindu duty to consider oneself as his great great grandchildren and to offer him oblations and libations on this day. An sraddha is performed and barley, sesame, flowers and gangajal are offered to Bhisma. Devotion to Bhisma on this day is said to guarantee successful progeny (Verma 73).
Black, Brian and Brodbeck, Simon (2007) Gender and Narrative in the Mahabharata. Oxon: Routledge.
Brodbeck, Simon Pearse (2009) The Mahabharata Patriline. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
Ganguli, Kisari Mohan (1990) The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa Vol V Bhishma Parva. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Hill, Peter (2001) Fate, Predestination and Human Action in the Mahabharata: A Study in the History of Ideas. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Verma, Manish (2007) Fasts and Festivals of India. New Delhi: Diamond Pocket Books (P) Ltd.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by Megan Perin, March 2013, who is solely responsible for its content.