bhishma (Gangaputra / Devavrata)

Bhishma Pitamah has many identities in Mahabharata, he was the son of Mother Ganga. His childhood name was Devvrat, since he was the son of Mother Ganga, hence he is also called Ganga Putra. The most popular name among all of them is Pitamah Bhishma. He got this name because of his strict observance of vows. This name was given to him by his father Maharaj Santanu and along with this he was also given the boon of euthanasia. He observed lifelong celibacy and took upon himself the responsibility of protecting Hastinapur. Although he was also the prince of Hastinapur before his vow of celibacy. He promised his father that he would not sacrifice his life until he saw Hastinapur safe from all sides and when the Pandavas were victorious in the war of Mahabharata, he sacrificed his life. Because Hastinapur gets a perfect king in the form of Pandavas, due to which Hastinapur seems to be safe from all sides. 

He participated in many fierce battles in his life and achieved victory in almost all the battles. He fought on behalf of the Kauravas to keep his promise in the battle of Mahabharata and he was also the chief commander of the Kaurava army. Although his love was more than Pandavas because he was on the path of Dharma and for the victory of Dharma he told the secret of his death to Pandavas and in that war Pandavas defeated him with the help of Shikhandini.

gangaputra Bhishma in Mahabharat

Eary Life of Bhishma Pitamah

Borning of Bhishma

We get a story behind the birth of Bhishma, which is described in the Adiparva part of the Mahabharata. According to Adiparva, Bhishma’s father Maharaj Santanu was the king of the Kuru dynasty. He was the youngest son of King Pratip. Once when he went hunting on the banks of the Ganga river, he saw a beautiful woman and fell in love with her. He expressed his desire to marry that women. The beautiful woman put a condition to him for marriage that she would not question him whenever she would take a decision and if he asked any question, she would immediately leave him.

Maharaj Santanu agrees to marry her and returns to his palace. When Maharaj Shantanu’s first child is born, then that woman picks up that child and drowns it in the river Ganga. Due to which Maharaj is very sad but because of his words, he is not able to ask him the reason for it. In this way, that woman drowns her 7 sons one by one in the Ganges, due to which Maharaj becomes very disappointed and suffers from depression. After some time, their 8th son is born and this time also the woman leaves that newborn in the Ganges on the pretext. Maharaj loses his patience this time and asks her why she is doing this?

On questioning of Maharaj Shantanu, that woman appears in her real form. She was Mother Ganga in the form of a woman. Then Mother Ganga tells that all her sons are actually 8 Vashu who were born in human form to suffer the curse given by Maharishi Vashishtha. Mother Ganga hands over that 8th newborn child to Maharaja Shantanu and goes away. Later this child later became known as Bhishma. And because of being the son of Mother Ganga, people also call him Gangaputra.

Story of Vasu

The story before the birth of Bhishma Pitamah is described in the Mahabharata. According to one story, Bhishma was actually Prabhas Namak Vasu who had to be born as a human due to a curse given by Maharishi Vashishtha. Vasu is counted among the 14 crore deities of Hinduism and their total number is 8. Once these 8 Vasus along with their wives were walking near the hermitage of Maharishi Vashishtha when Prabhas Namak Vasu’s wife saw Kamdhenu cow in Maharishi Vashishtha’s hermitage which was quite divine. Seeing that cow, Vasu’s wife named Prabhas got greedy in her mind and she told her husband to steal that cow.

At first all the Vasus opposed it, but later they bowed down to stubbornness and agreed to steal the Kamdhenu cow. All of them together stole that cow and left from there. When Maharishi Vashishtha could not find the cow in his hut, he traced the cow with his divine vision. When he found that Vasuo had stolen his cow, he became very angry. He cursed them and said that despite being a deity, you have done a reprehensible act, so you will have to be born as a human on earth as a punishment for this.

Hearing these words of Maharishi Vashishtha, all the Vasus apologized to the sage and wished to get rid of this curse soon. Then Maharishi said that his curse cannot be reversed, but you will get rid of human life very soon. The sage further explains that you will be born on earth as the son of Ganga and immediately after birth, Ganga will make you flow into the river Ganga, which will lead to your quick salvation. But Vasu Prabhas will have to take birth in human form and suffer on earth because under his influence you all have committed a heinous act like theft. Thus Vasu Prabhas was born as Bhishma, the 8th son of Maharaj Shantanu and Mother Ganga.

Education and Guru of Bhishma

The childhood name of grandfather Bhishma was Devvrat. He had received education from many great teachers.

  • Devavrata had learned the duties of kings (politics and punishment) and science from Brihaspati, the guru of the deities and Shukracharya, the guru of the Asuras.
  • He learned Vedas and Vedango from sage Vashishtha and sage Chyavana.
  • Sanatkumar, the eldest son of Lord Brahma, gave him the knowledge of mental and spiritual science.
  • He had received the knowledge of divine weapons from Devraj Indra.
  • The sage Markandeya taught him the duties of a yeti.
  • Parshuram, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, trained him in the art of warfare.

Bhishma Pratigya or Oath

Bhishma Pratigya
Image Source - Mahabharat (BR Chopra)

Bhishma’s vow which is one of the biggest incidents of Mahabharata. Why did a person who was known by the name of Devvrat suddenly everyone started calling him Bhishma? Behind this comes an incident, which establishes a new identity in the world for Devvrat.

The incident is such that once Maharaj Shantanu was boating on the banks of river Ganges, when he sees a very beautiful woman Satyavati and he becomes obsessed with her. He goes to Satyavati and expresses his desire to marry her. Satyavati’s father puts a condition for marriage that his daughter’s child will be the king of Kuru dynasty because his daughter’s horoscope has Raj Yoga. Maharaj Shantanu returns showing disagreement with this condition. After returning to the palace, he leads a very indifferent life.

To know the reason for Maharaj’s indifference, Devvrat asks the Maharaj’s servants the reason and after knowing the reason, he goes to Satyavati’s father and urges him to let Goddess Satyavati go with him, on which Satyavati’s father Telling the conditions, it is said that his daughter’s horoscope has Raja Yoga and because of this the child born from her womb will become a king. Devvrat loved his father very much, so he vowed to remain celibate for life to obey Satyavati’s father’s conditions and also promised him that Satyavati’s son would be the king of the Kuru dynasty.

When Devvrat returns to the palace with Satyavati, then Maharaj comes to know about this vow and he gets very upset that why did Devvrat take such a strict vow to fulfill his father’s wish? Devvrat explains to his father that he need not feel sad about it. Maharaj Shantanu, seeing his son’s love in this way, adorns him with the name Bhishma for his vows and gives him a special boon euthanasia that he can live on this earth as long as he wants, as long as he himself does not choose death. 

Life after becoming Bhishma

After getting the name Bhishma, Devvrat’s life was completely changed. He was now especially famous for his word-keeping. When the people came to know that Devvrat is not the prince of the Kuru dynasty, then the people put a question in front of Maharaj Shantanu that who will take the responsibility that the son of Queen Satyavati will be as great as Bhishma? Then Bhishma took another vow, that he would not give up his life until he installed a worthy king on the throne of Hastinapura and until Hastinapura was secured from all sides. Till then he will serve Hastinapur like a slave and the person who ascends the throne will treat him like his father. 

After some time, Satyavati has two sons, Chitrangad and Vichitravirya. But Maharaj Shantanu’s feeling of guilt towards himself kept on increasing because of the injustice done to Bhishma. Due to which Maharaj started living very sad and he died in the childhood of Chitrangad and Vichitravirya. After the death of the father, Bhishma brought up those two children. When both the brothers grew up, Bhishma installed Chitrangada on the throne of Hastinapur but he could not rule for long as he died in a battle with a Gandharbha. Later Chitrangada’s younger brother Vichitravirya was made the king although he was very young at that time. Bhishma governed the kingdom with the help of Queen Satyavati until he came of age.

Vichitravirya's marriage and Amba's Revenge

When Vichitravirya grew up, Bhishma proposed to marry him in front of Queen Satyavati and Mata Satyavati also agreed to this proposal. In those days Kashi Naresh was organizing Swayamvara of his 3rd daughter in which he invited all the kings and emperors from all over India but he did not invite Hastinapur for Swayamvara because his relation with Hastinapur was not going well. However, according to a custom, all the princesses of Kashi were married to princes from Hastinapur. When Bhishma came to know that Kashi Naresh had not invited Hastinapur for Swayamvar, then he became very angry and went to Kashi Naresh’s daughter’s Swayamvar to avenge this insult.

Amba Ambika and Ambalika
Image Source - Hotstar Mahabharat

He defeated all the kings in that Swayamvar with his muscle power and went to Hastinapur with the 3 princesses of Kashi Naresh. After coming to Hastinapur, Ambika and Ambalika accepted Maharaj Vichitravirya as their husband while Amba refused to do so and said that she loves Shalva Naresh and Shalva Naresh also loves her. After knowing the story of Bhishma Amba respectfully sends her to Shalva Naresh. Shalva Naresh refuses to adopt Amba and says that you go to Bhishma only. When Amba is rejected by the Shalva king, she comes back to Hastinapura and holds Bhishma responsible for the injustice done to her. Amba offers Bhishma to marry her, which Bhishma refuses saying that he has taken a vow of lifelong celibacy. Amba is deeply hurt by this and leaves Hastinapur, asking Bhishma to take revenge.

Battle of Bhishma and Parashurama

According to the Mahabharata, once there was a war between Bhishma and Parashurama. The story goes like this that Amba goes to Lord Parashurama to avenge her insult and blames Bhishma for the injustice done to her. She requests Lord Parshuram, the god of justice, to punish Bhishma appropriately. Lord Parashurama then summons Bhishma to Kurukshetra for a battle to punish him and asks him to fight. Parshuram was also Bhishma’s teacher, so Bhishma obeyed his Guru and fought with Parashuram. A fierce battle takes place between them in which Bhishma emerges victorious. Due to which Lord Parshuram is very pleased and also blesses him.

Seeing Lord Parshuram getting defeated in front of Bhishma, Amba knew very well the influence of Bhishma. Then she worships Lord Shiva and obtains a boon from him to become the cause of Bhishma’s death.

Bhishma's influence in Hastinapur

Bhishma was not the king of Hastinapur by the way, he himself accepted himself as a slave of Hastinapur. But he always had a distinct influence in the politics of Hastinapur. He made special contribution for smooth running of Hastinapur. When Maharaj Vichitravirya became of Hastinapur, he too could not rule for long. After some time he died of tuberculosis. At that time he did not even have a son whom he could see as the future prince of Hastinapur. At that time, his mother Satyavati urged Bhishma to marry Ambalika and Ambika and rule Hastinapur. Bhishma rejected his request and reiterated his promise that he had taken a vow of lifelong celibacy.

After this it was Bhishma who suggested that we can give Hastinapur a new crown prince through the Niyoga system. Rishi Vyas was also the son of Mata Satyavati, so he was requested to appoint him. Sage Vyas agreed and he came to Hastinapur to do Niyog. Then Ambika and Ambalika were sent along with a maid for Niyog so that they would not get scared seeing the fierce form of Maharishi Vyas. From this Niyoga three children are born – Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura. Dhritarashtra was the son of Ambika, Pandu was the son of Ambalika and Vidura was the son of the maid who was sent with them.

Bhishma brought up and trained the all three children. Later he got Dhritarashtra married to Gandhari, the princess of Gandhara. Pandu was married to Madri of Madra kingdom and Vidura was married to Devak’s daughter. Then when a king was to be elected for Hastinapur, Pandu was made the king of Hastinapur at the behest of Vidura. (Dhritarashtra was older in age, that’s why he was destined to become the king, but he was also blind. Vidura was very expert in policy and knowledge, so he suggested that it is not appropriate for the kingdom to make a blind person the king.)

Although Maharaja Pandu also could not rule for long, he left the palace due to a curse and went to the forest. After which Dhritrashta was made the king. With the passage of time, Maharaj Dhritarashtra had 100 sons and Pandu had 5 sons. The sons of Dhritarashtra were called Kauravas and the sons of Pandu were called Pandavas. There was a lot of disparity in the behavior of both the sons. Pandu’s sons were tolerant, calm and affectionate while Dhritarashtra’s son was not soft-hearted. Due to which Vidur and grandfather Bhishma had special affection for the sons of Pandu. After some time, Pitamah Bhishma sent Pandavas and Kauravas to Guru Dronacharya for education. Arjuna was one of his most favorite disciples. When everyone’s education was completed, then the idea for the successor of Hastinapur started and Pandu’s eldest son Yudhishthira was appointed as the successor.

Image Source - BR Chopra Mahabharat

However, Maharaja Dhritarashtra wanted to make his eldest son Duryodhana the king instead of Yudhishthira. Later, after the Lakshagriha incident, when the dispute between the two increased a lot, Hastinapur was divided at the behest of Bhishma. The part of Khandavprastha is given to Pandavas which is a barren and rocky place. The Pandavas transform the place and over time make it more developed and prosperous than Hastinapur. He kept Indraprastha as the capital of his kingdom. As time passes, Yudhishthira plans to perform the Rajasuya Yagya and declare himself as the emperor. Bhishma also participates in his Rajasuya Yagya.

When the Kauravas come to participate in the Rajasuya Yajna, they are surprised to see Indraprastha. Kaurava’s maternal uncle Shakuni invites Emperor Yudhishthira to gamble to usurp Indraprastha. In that game, with the help of Shakuni’s treachery, Emperor Yudhishthira loses everything and goes to exile for 12 years and Agyatvas for 1 year. (According to the rules of Agyatvas, if Kauravas found Pandavas in Agyatvas, they would have to go to exile again for 12 years) When Pandavas’ Agyatvas starts, then Kauravas start searching for him, during which a huge war takes place in which Bhishma is also involved. Let’s participate In that war, Arjuna fights alone and defeats the Kauravas along with the army. After which the great war (Mahabharata) is fought, in which Pitamah Bhishma is appointed as the commander.

Bhishma in the battle of Kurukshetra

When the peace proposal by Lord Krishna failed, the war between Pandavas and Kauravas was decided. Now the people of both the sides were engaged in preparing their own army. Everyone wanted to increase the number of great warriors in their camp so that their army would be stronger. But everyone knew that it is impossible to defeat the army led by Pitamah Bhishma. The Kauravas were quite sure that Pitamah Bhishma was bound by his word and would fight only for the army of Hastinapur. However, his support in this war was with the Pandavas because they were fighting the battle of Dharma. Pandavas were also worried about the fact that it is impossible to win this war with Bhishma. On behalf of the Kauravas, he was appointed as the commander of the Kaurava army and he was the first commander of the Kaurava army in this great war. He promised Duryodhana that he will kill their 10000 soldiers and 1000 chariots. But till then he had refused to kill the Pandavas because he loved them even more.

In the Battle of Kurukshetra, he was the only general from the Kaurava side who fought continuously for 10 days. As long as he was the commander-in-chief, the Kaurava camp was sure that no one could defeat him in this war because Bhishma had the boon of euthanasia and would not give up his life until he saw Hastinapur safe. Pandavas also had the same fate that they could never have won this war had it been for Bhishma’s grandfather. His prowess can be gauged from the fact that Lord Krishna, who became the charioteer of Arjuna in this great war, had taken an oath not to take up arms, but seeing the valor and unrighteousness of grandfather Bhishma being victorious, he lifted his Sudarshan Chakra in his hand. But Pitamah Bhishma was also very knowledgeable about Dharma, he also knew that it is necessary for Pandavas to be victorious for the establishment of Dharma. That’s why when the Pandavas went to Bhishma Pitamah to return Vijayashree’s blessings on the behest of Lord Krishna, he told them the way of their death.

Death of Bhishma

Pitamah Bhishma participates in the war till the 10th day of Kurukshetra. Although he remains alive even after this, he takes a bed of arrows and then does not participate in the war. When he told the Pandavas that whenever a woman comes in the middle of the battle path, he would give up his weapon. Then the Pandavas brought a warrior named Shikhandini to the battlefield, whose body was that of a man, but she was a woman from inside, and her grandfather Bhishma also considered her to be a woman. When Shikhandini appeared in front of Pitamah on Arjuna’s chariot as Arjuna’s armor, then Pitamah put down his weapons as per his promise because according to the rules of war, no warrior would attack a woman in battle. He gave up his arms to fulfill this promise. Then Lord Krishna told Arjuna that this is the best time, at this time Pitamah will not be able to fight with you, take advantage of this opportunity and defeat him in this great war. Arjuna listens to Krishna and hides behind Shikhandini and rains arrows on Bhishma’s grandfather, due to which his whole body is filled with arrows and he falls down from his chariot.

pitamah bhishm on arrow's bed
Image source - Navbharat Times

Even after falling down from the chariot, he is in his consciousness and does not even sacrifice his life to keep his promise. He kept taking arrows on the bed for about 58 days in the Kurukshetra battlefield and kept watching the results of the war. When the war of Mahabharata ended and the Pandavas got victory in this war, then they went to grandfather Bhishma and told him that with the blessings of all of you we have won this Dharma yuddh. Pitamah is happy to hear this news, but at that time he does not sacrifice his life due to the absence of the right condition of the Nakshtra. Then on the eighth day of the month of Magh, when the Sun God had entered Uttarayan, he requested Lord Krishna to remain in front of his eye, so that he could see the Lord in his last moments. Then he gave up his life.

Author note on Bhishma

Bhishma’s life was indeed the life of a great man. He took birth in the form of a human body but his works and his thoughts recognized him as the great hero of Hinduism. From which all kinds of inspiration can be taken. Whenever we talk about keeping one’s promise, then the name of Pitamah Bhishma comes at the top, how he sacrificed all his pleasures to keep his promise. To keep his word, he lay on the bed of arrows that hurt the body for 58 days and suffered physical pain. To keep his promise, he devoted his life as a slave of Hastinapur. There was no one else as powerful as him at that time. We can learn from Pitamah Bhishma today in this age that the meaning of strength is not to be earned but to be dedicated.

He adopted an austere lifestyle like celibacy and continued to stick to it throughout his life. We know him by the name of Bhishma for this stern vow of his. He added a new chapter of love between father and son that why only father sacrifices for the happiness of the son, why can’t the son do the same? He sacrifices his happiness for the happiness of his father. He gave a message to the society in his spirit that we should also do something for the happiness of the father, by which he would get special joy. We also see him as a great devotee whether it is devotion to Guru or devotion to God. Bhishma Pitamah may have fought on the side of the Kauravas in the war of Mahabharata, but he was loved by all because he had no inclination to harm anyone. Lord Krishna had also said for him that now a person like you is rare to be born in this world.

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