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Bheeshma And Learnings From His Life


Among all the characters in Mahabharata, Bheeshma is one who is well known mainly for his terrible vows to remain celibate and to be loyal to the throne of Hastinapura at all costs. He is one of the most conflicted persons with regard to choosing between absolute dharma and his own personal dharma. In the end, he was destined to choose personal dharma over the common good, which he believed to be the essence of his life.

About Shantanu

Prateepa was a King in the lineage of King Bharata, who was succeeded by many decorated kings including King Kuru, one of the mightiest and most righteous kings in Emperor Bharata’s lineage.

Prateepa had three sons – Devaapi, Bahleeka and Shaantanu. Devaapi had a skin blemish because of which he believed he was unfit for being a king and hence, proceeded to live the life of an ascetic and left for the forests. Bahleeka was a very noble soul. He was the reincarnation of King Prahlaada, a great devotee of Lord Narasimha. King Bahleeka was given in adoption to his maternal grandfather in the “Putrika Putratvam” pact.

Shaantanu was a reincarnation of Lord Varuna, the God of rains and waters. He was cursed to be born on earth where he lived the life of King Mahabhishak. After Mahabhishak performed great penance and left for the heavens, he saw his wife Goddess Ganga there and was unable to take his eyes off of her. When her upper garment slithered from her bosom he did not look away like others did, this was in presence of Lord Brahma who was angered by Mahabhishak’s indecent behaviour, who cursed him to be born on earth again (as Shantanu)!

Origin of Devavrata-Bheeshma, who was he? How is he believed to be over five hundred years old?

The children borne by Goddess Ganga were in their earlier lives Vasus. They were eight brothers and hence called aṣṭa Vasus. Among these Vasus was the noble Dyu. He was also called Prabhaasa. His wife Varaangi instigated him to steal the cow of Sage Vashishtha, because this cow’s milk had ambrosial properties.

Dyu hatched a scheme with all his brothers and took the lead in stealing the cow. When Sage Vashishtha came to know of the crime, he was naturally enraged. Being a lesser being than the Vasus, he had no authority to curse them. So Brahma ji manifested through him, and cursed all of them, to be born as human beings on earth. Dyu was cursed to lead a life equal to eight normal lives, with the last part of his life filled with the pain of all other lives.

The other Vasus would be born, and die shortly, thereafter achieving mukti. Dyu would be steadfast in his celibacy and would have a bitter relationship with his niyata patnī – Varaangi. Varaangi was cursed to be born as Amba, a desperate woman who would long and crave to be unified with her husband (Dyu, ie Bheeshma) but in the end would become frustrated, so much so that she would eventually become the reason for her husband’s death.

Mutely assimilating their curses, the Vasu brothers let go of the cow, and then prostrate at Vashishtha’s feet and seek a boon for their unfortunate brother Dyu, wanting him to be all-knowing, well-educated, and a well-renowned warrior, with unparalleled knowledge of divine missilery. They request that he be as mighty as all the eight brothers put together, and that during his mortal life he bear an amsha of Lord Brahma in him. Brahma ji, through Rishi Vashishta, accedes to their request.

They then go to Goddess Ganga so that she may bear them from her womb, and also kill them right away, helping them attain mukti, as ordained by Brahma ji. Goddess Ganga agrees to mother them all, and sticks to the conditions of the curse.

While, in televised Mahabharata edition, Ganga appears directly in front of King Shaantanu, in the original text, Ganga comes and sits on the right thigh of King Prateepa (a place that normally belongs to daughters, while the left thigh is the place adored by the wife ) and seeks to marry him. King Prateepa tells her that since she sat on his right thigh even if accidentally, she is like a daughter to him, and hence she would have to marry his son Shantanu, the heir to the throne.

Goddess Ganga puts forth three conditions to King Prateepa that (a) Shaantanu would not ask her who she is (b) he would not prevent her doing anything even if it was a misdeed (c) and if he questioned her actions, she would leave him forever. Prateepa agrees to these strange conditions and thus Ganga and Shaantanu are married.

Soon, the Vasu brothers are born one by one, all except Dyu. They are all cast away immediately after birth into the river Ganga, by Ganga herself. Shaantanu is unable to do anything because of the promises his father has made to Ganga. When Ganga takes the eighth brother, which is Dyu, to the river to cast him away and kill him, King Shaantanu cannot contain himself and stops her, thus breaking the promise made by King Prateepa to her. He questions Ganga as to why she is so keen on killing all his sons at birth.

Ganga tells King Shaantanu that since the promise made by King Prateepa is broken, she can no longer continue living with him. She tells him that she would not have killed this last son of theirs, but now has no choice but to leave him. She leaves the King with a heavy heart and a promise that in due course of time their son would be returned to his father, King Shantanu.

The son is named Devavrata. After all the initial rituals of tonsuring and the thread ceremony are completed, Devavrata is sent to Sage Brihaspati for learning Vedas for a period of fifty years. Devavrata is then sent to Parashuraama to learn metaphysics for a period of fifty years, and missilery for another fifty years. So when Devavrata is handed over back to Shaantanu he is already a hundred and fifty eight years old!

After joining King Shaantanu, Devavrata seeks his father’s permission and again leaves for studies under Rishis Brihaspati and Parashuraama. Devavrata spends over three hundred years only on education, under tutorship of the most knowledgeable beings on earth. This act of three hundred years of education was to fulfill the promise made by Brahma ji to the Vasus that Devavrata would bear an education equal to all the eight brothers. After completing his studies, Devavrata returns to his kingdom to be named the heir apparent.

Satyavati’s origin and her marriage to King Shantanu

Satyavati, in her earlier birth, was the daughter of a devata among Pitru Devata Ganaas by the name Agnishvaat. Her name was Achchoda. She had performed a severe penance unto Lord Vishnu to seek Him to be born as her son. Lord Vishnu had appeared before her and had acceded to her request. She was born then as a Kshatriya, to the king Kashiraaja, who also begot a son along with her as a twin, through union with a fish. She was fondly called Matsyagandhaa.

However, she grows up under the care of her foster father Daasharaaja, the chief of fishermen, who names her Satyavati upon adopting her. She has a divine and eternal perfume emanating from her which pervaded miles around her. Even though she gives birth to Bhagavan Veda Vyaasa from Rishi Paraashara, her virginity is restored by his grace, by a boon.

Meanwhile King Shaantanu after making Devavrata the crown prince of Hastinapura goes hunting on the banks of river Yamuna. He is immediately enticed by the perfume of Satyavati and seeks to marry her. She asks him to speak to her father for her hand in marriage.

Daasharaaja puts forth a condition that only the son born from the womb of his daughter would be the king of Hastinapura, if she were to be wedded to Shaantanu. Shaantanu is angered at these suggestions and hurries out of their house. He is however unable to forget Satyavati and is immersed in the darkness of unending melancholy. Seeing this Devavrata is unable to bear his father’s pensiveness, and seeks to find a reason for his father’s sadness. and eventually does through his father’s charioteer.

Devavrata becomes Bheeshma

Devavrata goes to meet Daasharaaja and promises him that he would give up his crown for the son born of Satyavati and his father, and further promises to stay celibate throughout his life, as a servant of the kingdom, thus ensuring that he does not bear his own offspring who could compete for the throne, with the sons and grandsons of the unborn son of Satyavati and his father.

This was a very terrible oath, such an oath had never been taken by anyone on earth before. Giving up one’s own future for an unborn child, and the progeny of that unborn child, to keep his father happy, was an act of extreme renunciation, earning Devavrata the praise of the Gods who showered him with flowers calling him, “Bheeshma – the one of the terrible vow”. Thus Devavrata became Bheeshma.

When Shaantanu hears of this , he is overcome with extreme grief and feels shameful that his attachment to Satyavati is so high that his son has now decided to give up not only his right over the throne, but also his future – his own right to have his own family and children – just to satisfy his father. Out of great love he blesses his son with boons of volitional death, invincibility, and irrepressibility in war.

Shaantanu then lives his life happily, with Satyavati bearing two sons Chitraangada and Vichitraveerya. Shaantanu feels that he has achieved very little with his withered body and gives up his mortal self voluntarily, taking his original form as Lord Varuna, and returns to heaven.

The lost link – from Varaangi to Amba to Shikhandini and then finally to Shikhandi

Chitraangada is made the King thereafter. He fights with a Gandharva by the same name and is killed in battle. Hence Vichitraveerya is made the king of Hastinapura, but he leads a very indulgent life without self-discipline. So Bheeshma rules the kingdom on behalf of the King. He even goes to represent his brother in seeking wives for him, by defeating Brahmadatta, the king of Shaalva who is getting married to Amba, Ambika and Ambaalika, the daughters of the King of Kaashi. Ambika and Ambaalika agree to marry Vichitraveerya, but Amba refuses to marry the King as she is in love with Brahmadatta, the King of Shaalva. Therefore Bheeshma arranges to return Amba respectfully to Brahmadatta.

Brahmadatta rejects Amba saying that she was won in battle by Bheeshma, and because he had lost her in war to a more capable Bheeshma. He asks her to go and wed Bheeshma, who has rightfully won her hand. Amba returns to Bheeshma and requests him to take her as his wife. Bheeshma tells her that he is committed to a life of celibacy and can not do so.

Neither can Vichitraveerya marry her, now that she has asked to be returned to the husband of her choice. She cannot also return to her parents because as per the then kshatriya practice a daughter who was once given away either in a marriage, war or through some other pact, could never be taken back.

Amba bears a deep sense of vengeance against Bheeshma who had inadvertently caused her to become a destitute. She seeks help from Parashuraama who promises her that Bheeshma would have to accept Amba as his wife. Parashuraama fights with Bheeshma in a battlefield to enforce his will over Bheeshma that he marries Amba, but the battle is fought to a stalemate. Eventually, Parashuraama praises the valor of Bheeshma and leaves for his hermitage, telling Amba to do penance instead.

Amba then enters into a penance unto Lord Shiva, who grants her a boon that she would become the reason for Bheeshma’s death by becoming a man in her next birth, and presents her with an ever-beautiful and un-witherable garland, which, whoever took up on his person, would kill Bheeshma. Amba takes that garland and travels to meet many kings.

Not one of the kings accepts this garland fearing the might of Bheeshma, who has the boon of volitional death, and irrepressibility in war. King Drupada is also one of those who rejects her request. Finally frustrated, Amba hangs the garland on the gates of his palace and leaves to perform her final ritual in which she gives up her life.

Amba is later born as a girl to King Drupada. King Drupada names her as Shikhandini. She is brought up as a man by performing rituals such as ChouLa and Upanayana. In due course of time she discovers the garland that she had hung over the gates as Amba, recollecting her past life fills her with pain, anger, and frustration again. She takes the garland and keeps it with her. In due course, she is then married as a man to the princess of the Kingdom DashaarNa. The wife of Shikhandini comes to know that Shikhandini is not a man and tells her father about the same.

The King of DashaarNa is infuriated and insults King Drupada for spoiling the future of his daughter by wedding her to someone who is not a man. Shikhandini is saddened at her plight, also that she is the reason why Drupada has been insulted. Disheartened, she leaves for the forest where she meets a Gandharva called Tumburu. Tumburu the Gandharva is a sthūla karṇa – meaning he has receptive ears. He asks Shikhandini to tell him her pain so that he could be of some help to her, so she relays her pain to the compassionate Gandharva who feels her pain as his own.

Tumburu is so overcome that he gives up his human body to Shikhandini in exchange of hers, turning Shikhandini into Shikhandi – a male with some female qualities. Shikhandi then returns to his kingdom and meets his father in law. King of DashaarNa examines his son-in-law, and on seeing that he is now a man, is ashamed at his own harshness, and Drupada too returns to his own kingdom.

Thus, Shikhandi is both male and female. She is born as a woman but through exchange of bodies, she takes on Tumburu’s body until such time that Shikhandi dies. Since s/he carries qualities of male and female, s/he is a valiant soldier. Then again, he is not keenly sought for warring with, by those who know about him, as warring against a woman is against Kshatriya Code of Conduct, this code is followed both by Bheeshma and Lord Krishna too.

In due course, Draupadi manifests out of the holy fire after Dhristadyumna when Drupada seeks to have a son who can kill Dronacharya. During Swayamvara of Draupadi, Shikhandi gives the same garland given to him when he was Amba by Lord Shiva, to Draupadi. S/he asks Draupadi to garland the man who wins her hand in the Swayamvara. Eventually Arjuna is the one who wins the Swayamvara and Draupadi garlands Arjuna with this. Thus, Arjuna is destined to be the killer of Bheeshma.

The End of Bheeshma

So, when Shikhandi stands facing Bheeshma, on the chariot of Arjuna on the tenth day of the Mahabharata war, Bheeshma refuses to fight Arjuna, who is standing behind Shikhandi. Arjuna, on command of Lord Krishna, takes advantage of the helplessness of Bheeshma and fires sharp arrows into the body of Bheeshma. Bheeshma then falls to the ground, now an old frail man sleeping on a bed of arrows. This sight is both bloody and spectacular. A warrior who cannot be defeated by Lord Parashuraama himself is now laid down on a bed of arrows! He is forced to live on until he sees that the kingdom of Hastinapura is secure.

No soldier or warrior has ever made such a big sacrifice to their motherland as Bheeshma did. Even the most revered sannyasi-s who have given up their material lives, and their relationships, in favour of an ascetic life, have to prostrate to their mothers as no one can be freed from the debt to their mothers. Because of the great sacrifice Bheeshma has made for his country, his kingdom, and his father, Bheeshma to this day, remains the only one who is free from the debt of mother earth, and towards his own mother, at the time of his death. Thus, Bheeshma attains mukti.

Learning from Bheeshma

Bheeshma is much too fond of his father. He gives up his own right to having his own life, his right to marital bliss, to satisfy the needs of his father. Bheeshma suffers from familial affliction similar to most of us, while Lord Krishna has taught us through the Bhagavad Geeta in the Mahabharata that nothing is more important than leading a righteous life, doing one’s own duty, with an orientation towards the result, but devoid of any attachment or expectation directed at it.

Bheeshma’s supreme sacrifice is exemplary, hitherto unknown, and never to be seen again hereafter. Yet he is forced to live on despite lying suspended in mid air with arrows piercing his person making it look like a bed of arrows on which he rests. In the end, he dies a most painful death, albeit a most respected one. Bheeshma weighs his oaths over his conscience so much that he is forced to side unwillingly with adharma and to go to war against dharma. Pandavas on the other hand choose the path of absolute dharma throughout their lives, finding Lord Krishna’s guidance at every step whenever they need Him.

What we learn from Bheeshma’s hence is that we must be vigilant against too much attachment towards our family members which might cause us to side with adharma over dharma and eventually lead to an unhappy life as well as our definite downfall. Even in his previous life as Dyu, Bheeshma committed an objectionable act for which he was punished, hence we see that there is no way out of the karmic cycle, except by surrendering to the teachings of Bhagavan Sri Krishna.


  • Mahabharata Tatparya Nirnaya

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