Bhisma-pitamah – the terrible oath taker, grand old man
other names: Bhishma, Bhismaa, Devvrata, Devavrath
Bhisma was the son of King Shantanu and Ganga. That is why he is also called Gangeya. Once, the eight Vasus (“Ashtavasus”-devtas of the eight directions i.e. North, South, East, West, North-east, North-west, South-east and South-west.) visited Sage Vashishtha’s ashram, accompanied by their wives. One of the wives took a fancy to Nandini, the wish-bestowing cow, and asked her husband Prabhas to steal it from Vashishta. Prabhas stole the cow with the help of the others, and they were all consequently cursed by Vashishta to be born in the world of men. The seven Vasus who assisted in stealing Nandini had their curse mitigated by being liberated from their human incarnation as soon as they were born, but Prabhas, due to his being instrumental in the theft (held the rope of the divine cow), was cursed to endure a longer life on the earth, though the curse is softened by the fact that he became one of the most illustrious men of his times. It was this Prabhas who took birth as Devavrath (Bhisma).
All of the Vasus took birth as Ganga’s sons. Ganga drowned seven of her sons in the river as soon as they were born. Shantanu kept the eight one for himself. Though Ganga had married Shantanu on a condition that he will never interfere in Ganga’s decisions, by keeping the eighth child, the promise was broken and so Ganga disappeared. The eighth son was Bhisma – he was named Devavrath. He was engrossed in unselfish filial duty.
Bhisma was a great warrior and a noble person. He was an honest man and could sacrifice anything of the nature of wealth or heaven, but could not part ways from the path of truth. He learnt the science of arms from Parshuram.
Devavrath became known as Bhisma because he took the bhishan pratigya — the vow of life-long celibacy and of service to whoever sat on the throne of his father (the throne of Hastinapur). This was because when his father Shantanu wanted to marry a fisher woman Satyavati, her father refused; on the grounds that his daughter’s children would never be rulers as Shantanu already had a son (Devavrath). This made Shantanu despondent. To reassure Satyavati’s father, Devavrath promised that he would never stake any claim to the throne, implying that any son born to Shantanu and Satyavati would then become the ruler after Shantanu.
At this, Satyavati’s father retorted that even if Devavrath gave up his claim to the throne, his (Devavrath’s) children would still claim the throne. At this, Devavrath, to make his father happy, took the terrible (bhism) vow to be celibate and never father any children, thus sacrificing his ‘crown-prince’ title. This gave him immediate recognition among the gods and his father granted him the boon of Swechha Mrityu (control over his own death i.e. he could choose the time of his own death).
Because of his vow, he refused to marry the daughter of Kashiraj, which offended Parasuram. There arose a fight between Parshuram and Bhisma that lasted for twenty-three days, but the teacher could not defeat his student. In the end, the Devtas (deities) intervened and stopped the fight.
In the process of finding a bride for his half-brother, the young King Vichitravirya, Bhisma cleverly abducted princesses Amba, Ambika and Ambalika of Kashi (Varanasi) from the assemblage of suitors at their Swayamvar. Salwa, the ruler of Saubal, and Amba (the eldest princess) were in love.
Upon reaching Hastinapur, Amba confided in Bhisma-Pitamah that she had wished to wed Salwa. Bhisma-Pitamah then sent her back to Salwa who turned her down, as it was humiliating for a man to accept a woman who had been so long in the company of another man. She approached Bhisma-pitamah to marry her, who refused her, citing his oath.
Amba, who was humiliated and enraged beyond measure, vowed to avenge herself against Bhisma even if it meant being reborn over and over again. Amba was reborn as Shikhandi, prince of King Drupad.
Satyavati’s (Kauravas’ and Pandavas’ grandmother) sons (Vichitravirya and Chitraganda) died and no one was left to take over the throne. Then Satyavati called Vyasji and made her widowed daughter-in-laws go for Niyog (Ancient Aryan Practice according to which a child widow could have sexual intercourse with the younger brother of her husband in order to beget a child) as a result of which they got three sons – Dhritrashtra, Pandu and Vidur through sexual intercourse with a sage.
Though Vidur was the healthiest of the three, (Dhritarashtra was blind and Pandu had vitiligo) since he was a maidservant’s son, Pandu was crowned the king. Bhisma-pitamah was working with the Kauravas but he was biased towards the Pandavas because of their truthfulness.
During the Mahabharata war, Krishna vowed not to pick up weapons, but at one point he lost his temper at Bhisma’s valour, and picked up the broken wheel of the chariot and ran. On seeing Krishna running, Bhisma folded his hands and said, “O, Almighty! You always protect your devotees’ promises; you protected my resolution because I had vowed today that I will forbid Krishna to pick up weapons.”
Arjun called for Shikhandi as his charioteer, so Bhisma-pitamah did not fight because Shikhandi (reincarnation of Amba) was born a woman and to strike a woman was deemed unworthy of the chivalrous. Bhisma was pierced with Shikandhi’s arrows and just as he was about to fall, the many arrows in his body made a sort of bed for him but left his head hanging.
Duryodhan and all the Kauravas ran with pillows to Bhisma Pitamah for his head, but Bhisma-pitamah told Arjun to do it. Arjun made a pillow out of arrows. He was also thirsty so Arjun shot an arrow on the ground and Devi Ganga appeared and quenched Bhisma’s thirst with her water.
When the war ended, Krishna went with Yudhishtir to Bhisma’s side where he taught them dharma (righteousness). Bhisma prayed to Krishna to show him his four handed form (Chaturbhuj) in the last moments of his life.
Till the Uttarayan Surya (around 14th January when the auspicious festival of Makar Sankranti is celebrated, when the Sun starts to make its Northward journey after reaching the peak of his journey South to the Tropic of Capricorn), Bhisma-pitamah remained there on the bed of arrows, refusing to let go of his life. In the last few moments of his life, he became engrossed in Shri Krishna with his mind and soul.
Before he ascended to heaven, he recited to Yudhishtir the famous hymn, “Vishnu Sahastranaam” (1,000 names of Vishnu) in praise of Krishna after the war, where Krishna or Vishnu is also called ‘Rama’, among other names of Vishnu, avatars of Vishnu and the names of Shiva.
It is believed that Bhisma was 350 years old when he died. Considering that he was a true Yogi and lived like a true human, this age is not unbelievable. Bhisma Pitamah was the patriarchal figure in the Mahabharata war, standing for dharma, truth and justice.