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Bhishma - A Heart Full of Truth and a Mind Full of Courage


Bhishma, originally named Devavrata, is one of the central pillars in the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata, who influenced the turn of events in the epic by his various acts of commission and omission. The story begins to take shape with the birth of Devavrata as a result of the union between the river Goddess Ganga and the king of Hastinapur, Shantanu. Ganga, who had drowned her first seven sons was about to drown her eighth son too when Shantanu confronted her and stopped her from doing so, thereby breaking his oath never to question Ganga’s actions. Ganga then proceeded to heaven with her child Devavrata after explaining to Shantanu that the child was, in fact, a God cursed by Guru Vashishtha to be born as a human and live a long and painful, yet illustrious life. She promised to return Devavrata back to him once he had gained thorough knowledge of sacred texts, martial skills as well as other skills required to run a kingdom.

Shantanu meets his son Devavrata


Several years had passed since Ganga took Devavrata back to heaven with her when one day, while on a hunting trip along the banks of the river Ganges, Shantanu saw the flow of the mighty river checked by a wall of arrows by a handsome young man. He was surprised to see such skills and curious to know his identity, which is when Ganga appeared in person and introduced Shantanu to his son Devavrata. Shantanu was extremely pleased to know that his son had grown up to be such a skillful archer and that he had been taught all the necessary skills by great masters like Guru Vashishtha and Parashurama. Shantanu took him back to Hastinapur where Devavrata soon won over the hearts of both his father and the people of the kingdom. Shantanu doted on his son who was a just, kind and brave prince and eventually he appointed him as the crown prince of Hastinapur.

Devavrata takes the terrible oath – Bhishma Pratigya


Shantanu was a great king, popular among his people. And with Devavrata showing the same promise, Shantanu left the running of the kingdom’s affairs to him more and more. One day, while on a hunting trip, Shantanu saw a beautiful fisherwoman named Satyavati and wished to marry her. She left the decision to her father, the chief of the fishermen who agreed on the condition that the son born to his daughter sat on the throne of Hastinapur. Shantanu, unable to meet this condition that would be so unfair to his beloved and deserving son Devavrata, went back to Hastinapur with a heavy heart. Though he kept his longing for Satyavati to himself, it started taking a toll on his health and he became ill and depressed and increasingly reclusive.

Devavrata was pained to see his father’s condition and somehow learnt the reason behind it. He, then, went to meet the chieftain and implored him to allow Satyavati to marry his father. The chief repeated his condition and Devavrata, the devoted son, vowed never to claim right to Hastinapur’s throne.  But even this was insufficient assurance for Satyavati’s father who wanted to ensure that there was no other claimant to the throne ever other than the children and grandchildren of his daughter. Understanding his concern, Devavrata made the ultimate sacrifice for his father by taking a lifelong vow of celibacy. This terrible oath or Bhishma Pratigya to remain alone and lonely for the rest of his life made the Gods appear and chant the name Bhishma and praise the prince’s devotion for his father. From then on, Devavrata came to be known as Bhishma.

Bhishma’s promise to serve the throne

When Shantanu came to know of Bhishma’s oath, he was overwhelmed at his sacrifice and gave him the boon that he would be able to choose the manner and time of his passing away from this world. While Shantanu and Satyavati got married, the courtiers and the people of the kingdom of Hastinapur were unhappy at losing an extremely deserving crown prince and they made their displeasure known to Bhishma. To appease them, Bhishma took yet another vow that he would always be there to serve the throne of Hastinapur and his loyalty would always lie with whosoever was the king at any point of time. Of course, Bhishma then had no way of knowing that his oath will force him to side with those whose actions he disapproved in his heart.

Bhishma’s status within the royal family

The various oaths that Bhishma took to bring about the marriage of his father with Satyavati put him in a peculiar, yet revered position within the royal family. He was loved by his father and respected by his step mother who realized the enormity of Bhishma’s sacrifice and the fact that he was a popular and powerful figure who would be a great ally and advisor in ruling the kingdom once the King passed away. Satyavati herself was initially rejected by people as a fisherman’s daughter, but soon, with the help of her husband and her stepson and her own conduct, she carved out a place in the heart of her people.

Shantanu and Satyavati had two children: Chitrangad and Vichitravirya. They had an aging father and looked upon Bhishma, their older step brother as a father figure, who in turn, loved them and brought them up as his own sons and ensured that they learned everything required to become future kings. When Shantanu passed away, Chitrangad was crowned as the king and he ran the affairs of the kingdom under the guidance of Bhishma and Satyavati. During this period, Bhishma had an elevated status in the palace and was the king for all intents and purposes, except in name. However, he never even once forgot his vow and misused his position as the one running the show. Satyavati and her children, in turn, had a lot of respect and affection for Bhishma.

Chitrangad grew up to be a great king; however, he was killed by an angry Gandharva king who was his namesake (celestial musician cum warrior) in a duel while Bhishma was away on state affairs. Bhishma was inconsolable when he heard of the death of his beloved brave brother but Satyavati showed grit and resilience and asked Bhishma to crown her younger son as the king as Chitrangad had no children. Bhishma did as advised by Satyavati and put Vichitravirya on the throne of Hastinapur and started running the state affairs in his name, while at the same time teaching him the ropes of ruling a kingdom.

Vichitravirya’s marriage and Amba’s oath

Satyavati, who was looking for a good match for her son Vichitravirya, was pleased to hear about the swayamvara of three beautiful daughters of the King of Kashi: Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika.  She asked Bhishma to go to Kashi and bring the three princesses to Hastinapur for marriage with her son. Bhishma did as asked, abducting the three while issuing a challenge to all other kings and princes present to stop him at their own peril. Salva, the king of Saubala, and Amba were in love and the brave king fought with Bhishma, but was defeated badly. However, when Bhishma came to know of Amba’s love for Salva, he sent her to him who, in turn, rejected her as he was still smarting from his defeat. Now, Amba asked Bhishma to marry her but he could not as he was under oath. This unfortunate turn of events enraged the princess and she went to Parashurama and requested him to kill Bhishma and avenge her. However, even Parashurama was unable to kill Bhishma who was an invincible warrior. This is when Amba vowed to please the Gods and take rebirth, if required, to take her revenge and kill Bhishma. Eventually, Amba was given a boon by Lord Shiva that she will be reborn as a great warrior and will be responsible for Bhishma’s death.

Birth of the next generation

Satyavati, despite having the assurance of her children inheriting the throne, was an unfortunate woman as both her sons died young without leaving an heir. Soon after his marriage, Vichitravirya fell ill and died childless. A grieving, yet ambitious Satyavati requested Bhishma to do niyog (sexual intercourse without lust to beget a child) with her daughters-in-law to give the kingdom an heir to the throne. Bhishma expressed his inability to do so citing his oath. This is when Satyavati called for a favor from his son Vyasa, author of this epic, who was Satyavati’s child born out of wedlock. Vyasa performed niyog with her sisters-in-law Ambika and Ambalika and a maid of Ambika and out of their union were born Dhritarashtra, Pandu, and Vidur, respectively. The eldest of the three, Dhritarashtra, was blind and as such, Pandu was declared the heir to Hastinapur’s throne. Once again, Bhishma, the king’s uncle played the role of the show runner in his nephew’s name while at the same time training him to take over the reins when he grew up.

Bhishma Pitamah, the grand old man of Kuru

Throughout his youth, Bhishma had run the kingdom by proxy but now, Dhritarashtra and Pandu were grown up princes and Pandu took over the duties of running Hastinapur while an aging Bhishma played the role of an advisor. As time passed, Dhritarastra was married to Gandhari and Pandu to Kunti and later, Madri. Unfortunately, both the princes were childless and thus, unhappy. While Gandhari was helped by Vyasa in begetting a hundred sons and a daughter, Kunti and Madri performed niyog with various Gods of heavens and had a total of five sons.

Pandu’s sons were born in the forest while he was serving penance for killing a sage and his consort. Kunti gave birth to Yudhishthira, Bheem, and Arjuna while Madri gave birth to male twins Nakul and Sahdev. These five were together called Pandavas while Dhritarashtra’s hundred sons came to be known as Kauravas with the eldest one being named Duryodhana.

While Pandu was in forest, Dhritarashtra was made the care taker king of Hastinapur. However, once Pandu and Madri died in the forest, he declared himself the king of Hastinapur. Satyavati, an old woman now who had seen many untimely deaths was grief stricken and left the palace to live in the forest with her daughters-in law. Kunti, in the meantime, returned to live in the palace with her five sons. Bhishma, the pitamah or grandfather to Kaurava and Pandava brothers gave his silent support to Kunti and loved the fatherless Pandava brothers, especially Arjuna, more than the Kauravas due to their humility and unquestionably good conduct.

However, when war was declared between Kauravas and Pandavas, despite an attempt by the palace elders and Sri Krishna to avert it by asking Duryodhana to give Pandavas their fair share of the kingdom, Bhishma chose to fight on the Kaurava side who then were the occupants of the throne of Hastinapur.

Bhishma and Krishna


Krishna arrives in the epic of Mahabharata a lot later than Bhishma and yet, plays an all important role in the story. Though both the characters are central to the story, they influence it in totally different ways. While Devavrata’s Bhishma Pratigya lays the foundation of the story and the events that unfold, Krishna’s wisdom and vision leads the story to its violent, yet justifiable end.

Bhishma is bound by a narrow interpretation of his vows as well as a rigid orthodox thinking, and as such, forced to ignore the many faults of the subsequent kings that rule Hastinapur, Krishna had no such compulsions.  He was forever ready to call a spade, a spade and help out the righteous Pandava brothers, his cousins, whenever they needed him. Even when Bhishma kept silent and looked away despite being present at Draupadi’s disrobing, it was Krishna who answered Draupadi’s prayers and saved her from a great insult with his divine powers.

Bhishma, forever the protector of the throne, led the war from the Kaurava side and caused huge damage to the Pandava forces, even though in his heart, he knew it wasn’t right. On the other hand, Krishna left no stone unturned to ensure Pandavas win the war at Kurukshetra and was their chief counselor and strategist without whom it would have been impossible for them to defeat the mighty Kaurava army and their allies. Krishna even gave Arjuna the moral support and motivation, Gitopadesh, in the battle field when Arjuna lost his nerve seeing his elders, family members and Guru in the enemy line up.

In spite of playing completely different roles in the events that shaped the destiny of Hastinapur, indeed the whole Bharata, both these mighty personalities had great respect and love for each other. Bhishma was much older than Krishna and an extremely learned and brave man enjoying reverence by all around him. Bhishma was also well aware of Krishna’s divinity and was his great devotee. Krishna, in turn, loved Bhishma for his complete devotion to him and understood that his actions were guided by his understanding of the Vedas and Vedic traditions and the fact that  this understanding was too deeply rooted for him to accept and support the changing moral standards and world view that Krishna wanted to establish. For Bhishma, it was important to do his duty as he saw it, all the while knowing that ultimately, Krishna’s wish would be supreme.


During the war, an invincible Bhishma wreaked havoc on the Pandava army for ten days but he had vowed not to kill Pandavas, his grandchildren. When provoked by Duryodhana, he relented and said that either he will kill Arjuna the next day or make Krishna pick up a weapon and force him to break his vow. In the battle that ensued the next day, Bhishma was very near killing Arjuna when Krishna broke his vow and picked up a wheel against Bhishma. This incident is significant in that it shows that Krishna was prepared on one hand to break his own vow to defend his beloved Arjuna, on the other he helped his devotee Bhishma to keep his vow of either killing Arjuna or forcing Krishna to pick up a weapon. And here lies the difference in the characters of the two men – one ready to sacrifice all to keep his vows, the other ready to do all it takes to establish dharma.


Krishna then asked Arjuna to go to Bhishma and understand how he could be killed and Bhishma obliged by telling them he would not raise his weapons against a woman or a transgender. Arjuna then fatally injured Bhishma when he laid down his weapons seeing Shikhandi, or Amba reborn.

Bhishma had the boon of deciding the manner and time of his death and even though he was in great pain, he did not yet wish to leave this world. And this is when Krishna gave a boon to Bhishma that he would not feel any pain from his wounds and encouraged him to share his immense knowledge of statesmanship with Yudhishthira, the future king of Hastinapur, thereby ensuring that his name would forever be etched in history not only for his vows and valiance, but also as a great scholar and statesman.

Bhishma: A character sketch

Devavrata, a gentle, learned, kind and righteous young man and a loving and devoted son was aptly named Bhishma once he had taken the terrible oaths of celibacy and renunciation of the throne of Hastinapur. To add to these two oaths, he also promised his father and the people of the state that he would be subservient to the throne and the king of Hastinapur. These impulsively taken oaths, for an unworthy cause, colored his judgment and decisions throughout his life.

Despite being a great warrior and possessing all the qualities of a great king, Bhishma was reduced to playing the role of an administrator and advisor without any actual powers. Had he not taken the vows so literally, he could have won other kingdoms completely on his own strength and lived a more fulfilling life and exerted greater influence on the events that unfolded in his old age. From the very beginning, Bhishma realized that the Kaurava brothers were not only jealous of their cousins and rude to them, but also arrogant and dangerous. Even when they tried a number of times to get the Pandavas killed, Bhishma did nothing to stop them though he had a lot of clout with their parents.


Bhishma was a man who lived his life by the book. He was orthodox in his thinking and took every written word in the Vedas at their face value. This was apparent in the way he chose to be a silent spectator when Draupadi was being disrobed in Dhritarashtra’s court. Vedas considered women as property and once Yudhishthira gambled away his wife Draupadi to Duryodhana, he did not think it right to protest the ghastly act even on humanitarian grounds.

Bhishma’s inaction at crucial junctures in the story is a blot on his otherwise righteous conduct and goes against him when a final evaluation of his character is done. His great strength and bravery is wasted, indeed misused, by the Kauravas and their maternal uncle Shakuni both before and during the war who understood Bhishma’s inability to shrug off his misplaced loyalty to the throne and used it to their advantage. Had Bhishma understood and interpreted his vow of loyalty to the throne better and taken a broader view of his duties, he would have realized that he was doing a great disservice to the kingdom and its people, not to mention the Kuru clan which was hell bent on self destruction, by not taking action against the injustice being meted out to the Pandavas.

However, he did try at the end to do the right thing by sharing with Arjuna how he could be killed. Lying on his death bed, having finally done his duty, he showed his true love for his grandson Arjuna by asking him to arrange for a pillow for him and satisfying his thirst, ignoring the efforts made by others including Duryodhana to serve him.

Bhishma was cursed and born to live a painful life and he did so without any complaints. A warrior sans peers, he ensured Hastinapur was protected from any and all external threats and died in the process, finally satisfied in his heart that the throne now belonged to a righteous king.
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