Bhishma Pitamah: The Grand Patriarch of the Kuru Dynasty

Bhishma Pitamah, also known as Devavrata, was born to King Shantanu and Bhagirathi Ganga. His birth marked a pivotal moment in the Kuru dynasty’s history. However, his extraordinary birth circumstances set the stage for his unique destiny.

Birth of Bhisma and its divine connections

According to Mahabharata, a King named Mahabhisha, born in the Ikshvaku lineage, was lord of the earth, who made 1000 horse sacrifices and 100 vajapeya sacrifices and attained heaven. One day, the gods paid homage to Brahma; King Mahabhisha was also there, and the river Ganga came. Due to a sudden wind, her garments, as white as moonlight, were blown away. All the gods lowered their faces, but King Mahabhisha stared at her unabashedly. So, he got a curse from Brahma that he will again born on earth. He chooses King Pratipa as his father.

On the way back home, Ganga met with celestial vasus, who was cursed by sage Vashishtha to be born in a womb for a minor transgression. Vasus requested Ganga to bear them in her womb and hurl them into water as soon as they are born so that they are free quickly and do not suffer much. Ganga agrees to do that, but to ensure that her reunion with King Mahabhisha is not fruitless, she asks to let one son remain with him. The vasus agreed to give one-eighth of their respective energies to that son. They said he would be valorous but remain without a son. This set the stage for Bhisma to be born from the river Ganga and to remain celibate.

River Ganga then begins to meet King Pratipa and ask him for a favor. She asks him to unite with his son and promises that with her love, he will be a famous Bharata lineage. The condition is that he should not know about her high birth nor question her actions. She says that because of his son, his righteous conduct, and his merits, your son (King Mahabhisha) will attain heaven. King Pratipa agreed to accept Ganga as his daughter-in-law.

King Pratipa obtained a son (Mahabhisha). He was known as Shantanu. When Santangu became young, King Pratipa told him that one day, one divine and beautiful lady would approach him and desire to obtain offspring through him; you must not question her about who she is and who she belongs to. It would help if you did not ask about any of her acts. You must love her as she loves you. After commanding this to his son, he instated him on the throne and departed for the forest.

One day, King Shantanu saw a supreme woman dazzling in her beauty. The King was astounded at her beauty. He gazed at her with his eyes but was not satisfied. Seeing the radiant King move around, she also felt love and affection for him. He requested her to be his wife, and she remembered the promises made to Vasus.

She said she would be his queen and obey his words. But you must not interfere in my acts, whether they please or displease you. You must never try to stop me or speak to me harshly. As long as you act in the way I have asked you to, I will be with you. But I will leave you whenever you try to stop or speak to me
harshly.” Then, the divine Ganga, in a beautiful and radiant human form, lived happily as an obedient wife to Shantanu. Over time, eight sons were borne by her, each resembling a god. As soon as each son was born, one after another, she flung them into the waters of the Ganga, saying this is for your good. Her actions did not please King Shantanu, but he did not dare to utter a word for fear of losing her.

The King anxiously pleaded with Ganga not to harm their eighth son, expressing his desire for a son and questioning her identity. Ganga reassured him, promising not to harm the child and revealing her true identity as Ganga, the daughter of Jahnu, worshipped by many sages. She explained that she had stayed with him to fulfill the gods’ wishes and to free the divine Vasus from a curse imposed by Vasistha.

Ganga declared that the King had become the father of the powerful Vasus by her association and that she must now depart. She named the child Gangadatta and urged the King to raise him with care, as he would be steadfast in his vows. With her mission fulfilled, Ganga bid farewell, leaving the King. This son of Shantanu came to be known under two names—Devavrata and Gangeya.

Major Life Events:

MotherBhagirathi Ganga
Other names of BhismaGangadatta, Devavrata, Gangeya
Step-brothersVichitravirya and Chitrangada
Killed byArjuna (ichha-mrityu)

Devavrata’s Re-Union with Father

Devavrata was like Shantanu in beauty, righteous conduct, behavior, and learning. Compared to other kings, he was mighty in strength, mighty in power, mighty in valor, and mighty as a charioteer. He was skilled in the usage of all weapons.

One day, while strolling along the riverbank, King Shantanu saw a youth trying to change the course of the river Ganga with his divine weapons and a bow. The youth recognized his father, but Shantanu, having seen him only at birth, could not remember his son but suspected him. Then, the King addressed Ganga to show their son.

Ganga presented Shantanu with their eighth son, who was highly educated in the Vedas, Vedangas, and other sacred texts by the sage Vashishtha. This son was exceptionally skilled in warfare, possessing unmatched prowess as an archer and being revered by both gods and demons alike. He possessed profound knowledge akin to that of renowned sages like Brihaspati and expertise in weaponry comparable to the powerful and invincible Parashurama.

Ganga entrusted Shantanu with their brave and knowledgeable son, who excelled in both martial and ethical teachings practiced by kings. Accepting his radiant son, Shantanu returned to his kingdom.

Bhishma Pratigya

One day, King Shantanu was walking into a forest near the Yamuna River when he encountered a remarkably beautiful woman (Satyavati) from the fishermen tribe. Enchanted by her beauty and fragrance, Shantanu desired her as his wife. He approached her father, the king of the fishermen, and requested her hand in marriage.

The fisherman agreed but laid down a condition: the son born to them would inherit the throne after Shantanu. Despite his burning desire, Shantanu was reluctant to accept this condition and left, troubled by his emotions and the weight of the fisherman’s demand.

One day, Devavrata, Shantanu’s son, noticed his father’s constant sorrow and questioned him about it. Shantanu revealed that despite having Devavrata as his only son, he was troubled by the transient nature of life and the possibility of his lineage ending with him. He expressed reluctance to take another wife and emphasized the significance of having a son in upholding the family lineage. Shantanu also voiced concern about Devavrata’s safety, fearing the consequences if he were harmed. After understanding his father’s anguish, Devavrata sought counsel from an elderly advisor, who disclosed the truth about the condition imposed by the fisherman regarding Shantanu’s marriage.

Devavrata, accompanied by elderly Kshatriyas, approached the king of the fishermen to request his daughter’s hand in marriage for his father, Shantanu. The fisherman, acknowledging Devavrata’s noble lineage and his father’s virtues, expressed his reluctance to refuse such a prestigious proposal. He revealed that Satyavati’s birth was foretold by a sage equal in quality to Devavrata and cited the potential consequences of angering Devavrata as his only concern. 

In response, Devavrata solemnly pledged to fulfill the fisherman’s conditions, declaring that the son born to Satyavati would inherit the kingdom. Impressed by Devavrata’s commitment, the fisherman acknowledged his righteousness but expressed doubts about the future lineage. To ensure his daughter’s welfare, he voiced his concerns about the uncertainty surrounding Devavrata’s future sons. Understanding the fisherman’s apprehensions, Devavrata renounced his claim to the throne and vowed lifelong celibacy to dispel doubts about his future progeny.

From the sky, apsaras, gods, and rishis rained down flowers and said he is Bhishma (the terrible or fearsome one) because of his vow. Bhishma’s most significant and enduring commitment was his oath of celibacy, also known as the “Bhishma Pratigya” or the “Vow of Bhishma.”

Bhishma then escorted Satyavati, now known as his mother, to their home in Hastinapura and recounted the entire incident to Shantanu. Shantanu, deeply moved by Bhishma’s devotion, granted him the power to control the timing of his death.

Birth of Chitrangada and Vichitravirya

Satyavati and King Shantanu had two sons together. The first son, Chitrangada, was known for his bravery and surpassed all others in valor. The second son, Vichitravirya, became a skilled archer. Unfortunately, before Vichitravirya could fully mature, King Shantanu passed away.

Bhishma, always obedient to Satyavati, ensured that Chitrangada ascended the throne. Chitrangada proved his courage by defeating numerous kings but met his match in a battle against a powerful Gandharva king. After a fierce three-year battle near the Hiranyavati River, Chitrangada was slain by the Gandharva, who then ascended to heaven.

Despite his young age, Bhishma performed the funeral rites for Chitrangada and then installed Vichitravirya as the king of the Kuru kingdom. Vichitravirya ruled under Bhishma’s guidance and paid homage to him, and Bhishma, in return, protected the kingdom according to dharma.

Marriage of Vichitravirya

Seeing that his brother Vichitravirya had come of age, Bhishma contemplated arranging his marriage. Upon learning about the svayamvara of the three daughters of the king of Kashi, renowned for their beauty, he sought his mother’s consent and embarked on a journey to Varanasi, fully armed and prepared with the intention of marrying them to his brother Vichitravirya.

He challenged the assembled kings, stating that he would take the maidens by force, inviting them to fight against him. Despite their anger, the kings couldn’t defeat Bhishma, who skillfully defended himself and defeated them in battle. However, King Shalva managed to strike Bhishma from behind, leading to a duel between the two. After a fierce battle, Bhishma emerged victorious but spared Shalva’s life. He then brought the maidens to Hastinapura and gave them to Vichitravirya. This act, done by dharma, marked the beginning of arrangements for Vichitravirya’s marriage under the guidance of Satyavati.

During the wedding preparations, the eldest daughter of the king of Kashi, Amba, revealed to Bhishma that she was already committed to the king of Soubha, Shalva. Bhishma, consulting Brahmanas, allowed her to leave. He then married the other two daughters, Ambika and Ambalika, to his younger brother Vichitravirya.

Death of Vichitravirya

Vichitravirya, initially virtuous, became consumed by desire after marrying them. He enjoyed marital bliss for seven years but succumbed to consumption and passed away. Following Satyavati’s instructions, Bhishma conducted the funeral rites for Vichitravirya.

Satyavati, grief-stricken over her son’s death, turned her attention to preserving the lineage and dharma. She appealed to Bhishma to marry his brother’s widows to ensure the continuation of the dynasty. However, Bhishma, committed to his vow of celibacy, steadfastly refused, citing the sanctity of truth above all else.

Despite his mother’s pleas, Bhishma remained resolute in his commitment to dharma and truth, refusing to deviate from his vow. He urged Satyavati to consider dharma and consult wise counselors to determine the best action for the world’s welfare. Bhishma suggested inviting a Brahmana with all the qualities to father sons on Vichitravirya’s behalf to ensure the continuation of the Bharata dynasty through descendants.

Satyavati proposed inviting her son with sage Parashara, also known as Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa, to father sons on Vichitravirya’s behalf. Seeing the wisdom and righteousness in Satyavati’s suggestion, Bhishma agreed to the plan, acknowledging its adherence to dharma and the welfare of their lineage.

Thus, Bhishma arranged for Vichitravirya’s widows, Ambika and Ambalika, to practice the ritual of Niyoga with Krishna Dvaipayana Veda Vyasa to fulfill the dynasty’s need for an heir. Ambika gave birth to Dhritarashtra, and Ambalika gave birth to Pandu, whereas Vidura was born through the union of Vyasa with the maidservant.

Mentorship of the Kuru Princes

Right from birth, Bhishma raised Dhritarashtra, Pandu, and Vidura as his sons, imparting them education, rites, and ethical principles. As they grew, they became proficient in various arts, including archery, horsemanship, warfare, and mastering sacred texts and scriptures.

Pandu excelled in archery, Dhritarashtra in strength, and Vidura in unwavering devotion to dharma. Despite the revival of Shantanu’s lineage, Dhritarashtra’s blindness prevented him from inheriting the kingdom, leaving Pandu to ascend the throne.

Kuru Dynasty’s Guardian:

Bhishma played a pivotal role in safeguarding the Kuru dynasty during political unrest. His prowess in battle and commitment to dharma made him a formidable protector of Hastinapura.

After many attempts to kill Pandavas failed, Duryodhana sought the advice of Bhisma and Drona. He intended to kill Pandavas or weaken them. Bhishma said, “I will never agree to a war with Pandu’s sons.”

Bhishma suggested Duryodhana to avoid conflict and seek peaceful resolutions with Pandavas. Bhishma emphasized the need to treat the Pandavas respectfully and fairly, acknowledging their rightful claim to their paternal property.

He urged Duryodhana to consider a treaty with the Pandavas, suggesting that dividing the kingdom would be the best solution for all parties involved. Bhishma’s message underscored the principles of justice, fairness, and avoiding unnecessary bloodshed in resolving disputes.

Duty as a Warrior:

Bhishma was an unparalleled warrior with exceptional skills in archery and combat. He played a crucial role in numerous battles, earning a reputation as a formidable force on the battlefield.

Bhishma’s loyalty to Hastinapura compelled him to support the Kauravas in the conflict against the Pandavas. His role as the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army during the Kurukshetra War was a critical aspect of the epic.

Despite aligning with the Kauravas, Bhishma never compromised on his adherence to dharma. He sought to avoid unnecessary bloodshed and attempted to mediate conflicts, always striving to uphold righteousness.

Fall and Death of Bhisma

Bhishma went to Kashi to invite the princesses (Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika) for marriage to Vichitravirya, the king of Hastinapura. During the swayamvara (marriage ceremony), Bhishma abducts Amba with her sisters Ambika and Ambalika. Amba expressed her desire to marry Salva, and Bhishma allowed her to leave with Salva.

Later, Amba also faced rejection from Salva, as her captor’s touch spoiled her. Seeking revenge against Bhishma for disrupting her life, Amba underwent severe penance, ultimately gaining the boon from Lord Shiva to cause Bhishma’s death in her next life. She kills herself to hasten the fulfillment of the boon. Amba takes birth as Drupad’s daughter Shikhandini, later known as Shikhandi, who becomes the cause of Bhishma’s death during the Kurukshetra War.

When Bhisma Pitamah was decimating the Pandava armies and tilting the balance in favor of the Kauravas, Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer and guide, devised a strategic plan to stop him. He positioned Shikhandi, born as Amba seeking revenge against Bhishma, in the front lines, and Arjuna took cover behind Shikhandi.

Bhishma, aware of Shikhandi’s past and bound by his vow to never raise weapons against a woman, refused to attack. Seizing the opportunity, Krishna directed Arjuna to unleash a barrage of arrows from behind Shikhandi. Arjuna, following Krishna’s guidance, targeted Bhishma relentlessly.

Despite the intense pain caused by Arjuna’s arrows, Bhishma adhered to his vow and did not retaliate. The fierce battle marked a turning point, leading to Bhishma’s eventual fall. However, having chosen the moment of his death, Bhishma lay on a bed of arrows and continued to impart wisdom to Yudhishthira until his final departure from the mortal realm.

Penance on a Bed of Arrows:

The latter part of Bhishma’s life saw him engaged in the Kurukshetra War, where he fought valiantly. However, due to his vow not to kill the Pandavas and his unwillingness to harm women and children, he found himself in a challenging position. Ultimately, Bhishma chose to lay down on a bed of arrows and continued to impart wisdom to Yudhishthira.

Bhishma’s Major Saying:

Bhishma Pitamah was renowned for his wisdom; many of his teachings have been passed down through the Mahabharata. One of his major sayings reflects his understanding of the complexities of life:

“Life is short; live it truthfully. Injustice exists, but it can be overcome by truth. It is always better to fail with honor than to succeed by fraud.”

This saying encapsulates Bhishma’s commitment to truth, righteousness, and the importance of maintaining integrity despite challenges.

Try to preserve your good reputation. A good reputation is the source of supreme strength. It is said that a man who has lost his reputation lives in vain. As long as a man’s good reputation lasts, he does not die. He is destroyed when his good reputation is lost.

Legacy and Reverence:

Bhishma Pitamah’s legacy symbolizes sacrifice, duty, and commitment to principles. His life exemplifies the intricate balance between personal desires and societal responsibilities. Bhishma’s enduring impact on the Mahabharata as a warrior and a wise counselor makes him a revered figure, and his teachings continue to inspire generations.

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