Mahabharata, one of the greatest epics in the Indian history has different characters with each having its own significance and lessons to teach. One of the major characters of Mahabharata and also the finest personality, who however, met with a very painful end was Bhishma, popularly known as Pitamah Bhishma or Bhishma pitamah. The word pitamah is derived from sanskrit which literally means grandfather.
Bhishma was the eighth son of Kuru king Shantanu and river Ganga. One day, Shantanu saw a pretty woman, Ganga, on the banks of a river (Ganges) and fell in love with her. Ganga agreed to marry Shantanu but on one condition that he will never question her about anything else she will leave him forever. Shantanu agreed to the condition and married Ganga. Soon after the marriage, Ganga gave birth to a beautiful son. But she drowned him in the river. Shantanu was in shock to see his wife killing her own child but he did not questioned her nor stopped her as he did not want to lose the love of his life. One by one Ganga, however, drowned seven of her sons and Shantanu could do nothing but mourn his loss.
When Ganga gave birth to her eighth son and was about to drown him, that is when Shantanu stopped her and finally enquired her. He wanted to know the reason for which Ganga was drowning her own sons. Ganga revealed that she and Mahabhisha were cursed by Lord Brahma to be born as mortals. Further she told Shantanu that their eight sons were the Ashtvasus (eight vasus) who were cursed by sage Vashishtha to be born as mortals as they tried to steal his wish granting cow Kamdhenu. But since it was the eighth vasu, who was the initiator and main executor of the plan, Vashishtha lightened the intensity of the curse for the seven vasus by saying that they would be relieved from the mortal life within a year of their birth. Butt the eighth vasu would have an extremely long life and a painful end. This eighth vasu was the eighth son of Ganga and Shantanu and was named Devratta by Ganga. Since, Shantanu interrupted and questioned Ganga for her actions, she left Shantanu forever and took her son with her to impart of the divine qualities and knowledge in him. Devratta was taught by many great sages and gods like Brihaspati, Shukracharya, Vashishtha, Parshurama, Indra, Markandeya and Sanatkumara.
After Ganga left Shantanu with her son, Shantanu devoted himself completely to his kingdom. He worked for the welfare of citizens and made Kuru kingdom the largest and most powerful of all the kingdoms in the world. For many years Shantanu did not decided to divert his mind to the worldly pleasures and feelings of love. However he was seeing a fisherwoman named Satyawati, in whom he confided himself and saw a true friend.
One day, while walking along the banks of river Ganga, Shantanu realised that the water has become very shallow. He decided to trace the reason behind the shallow flow of Ganga and began inspecting the area, until he reached a spot where a young, handsome and well built man was taking a bath and has stopped the flow of the river with his divine weapon. This was Devratta, Shantanu’s son, but he could not recognize him as he has seen his son at a very tender age. Devratta saw Shantanu and immediately recognized him as his father. He decided to come in front of him and vanished instantaneously using his power of illusion. Shantanu became confused and called Ganga to talk to him and guide him. Ganga emerged out of water and saw a confused Shantanu. She told him that the young man was none other than his own son Devratta, who is now a well built and powerful man and has seeked teachings from great sages and gods. She then called her son to meet his father. Shantanu was very happy to meet his son and declared him to be the rightful heir of the Kuru kingdom of Hastinapur.
Shantanu was finally happy. His kingdom was soaring, it was flourishing and he got united with his son, in whom he saw his rightful heir. Eventually, his friendship with Satyawati was also taking new heights and was taking form of love. Shantanu wanted to marry Satyawati so he went to her father Dusharaj, who refused to this marriage. He told Shantanu that since he has already decided his heir as Devratta, Satyawati’s son will not get a chance to rule the kingdom. Dejected, Shantanu returned to his palace and became despondent. First he lost Ganga and now Satyawati. He was not focussing on anything. Seeing his father’s state, Devratta went to Dusharaj and convinced him that he will give the royal status to Satyawati’s sons and will withdraw as Hastinapur’s heir. But Dusharaj was not yet convinced. He told Devratta that even if he will not be the king, his sons will and then again Satyawati and her sons will be reduced to lowly status. Listening to this, Devratta took a strong vow of not marrying anyone ever and to follow Brahmacharya (celibacy). Because he took such a difficult and strong vow, he is called Bhishma. He further assured Dusharaj that he will always serve the king and Kuru kingdom as a servant and will not come in path of Satyawati’s sons to compete for kingdom of Hastinapur. Being convinced, Dusharaj agreed to marry her daughter to Shanatanu. Soon Shantanu and Satyawati gave birth to a son named Vichitravirya, the heir of Kuruvansh, who became the king of the royal Hastinapur kingdom.
Draupadi, the wife of Pandavas, was humiliated in the royal court of Hastinapur. She was dragged from her hair by Dushasana and her cheerharan was conducted by him, in front of all the wise and aged men including Bhishma and Dronacharya, who preach of great deeds and moral conduct. Draupadi’s honour was protected by Lord Krishna. However, she criticised and condemned Bhishma for being able to exercise any control over his grandsons. She criticized him that despite being the greatest warrior alive on the earth, he was not brave enough to protect the honour of a woman.
Bhishma was a great warrior. He loved Kauravas and Pandavas both. However, he was more inclined and soft towards the Pandavas because they were not only kind men, but were also pious at heart and were composite of all the moral and spiritual deeds, unlike the Kauravas who were wicked, shrewd and evil. Before the great war of Mahabharata, Bhishma declared that in any case, he would not harm any of the Pandavas. Bhishma was a terrific warrior. Everyday he used to kill nearly tens of thousands of soldiers alone. But he did not hurt the Pandavas even if they were in front of him. One night, Duryodhana went to his camp and accused him of being not just biased towards the Pandavas but also cheating against his own Hastinapur kingdom. He is not following his responsibilities properly, of which he talked about decades ago in his vow. Listening to him, Bhishma decided to either kill Arjuna or force Lord Krishna to take up weapons against his vow of not doing so in the war. The next day, Bhishma faced Arjuna and was attacking him continuously with arrows. Both Arjuna and Krishna were injured. Seeing the wrathful face of Bhishma, Krishna took the wheel of his chariot and was about to sprung it at Bhishma when arjuna stopped him and made him recall his vow of not lifting weapons in the war. The day ended in a stalemate. To resolve the situation, Pandavas, the same night, met bhishma in his camp where he gave them a hint of how he could be defeated. He told Pandavas that he would, in any case, not lift weapons against a woman. Krishna then decided to bring Shikhandi to warfare as Arjuna’s saarthi. Arjuna was unsure about this but agreed when Krishna convinced him. The next day, Bhishma again faced Arjuna in the battlefield, but seeing Shikhandi, he dropped his weapons. Arjuna pierced his whole body with numerous arrows in a way that when he feel, he laid on that arrow bed.
Seeing their grandfather in this situation, both Pandavas and Kauravas ran towards him. Bhishma asked for something to rest his head on. Duyodhana brought him silk pillows and soft blankets but refusing to the luxury, Bhishma asked Arjuna to make him a pillow of arrows. Seeing his grandfather thirsty, Arjuna pierced the earth in a manner that a stream of water emerged and quenched Bhishma’s thirst. It is said that Ganga herself sprang to quench the thirst of her son.
Bhishma had received the vardan of iccha mrityu, so he did not die immediately he was pierced with arrows. After the war was over and everything was destroyed, Yudhishthira along with Krishna, came to Bhishma to learn lessons about dharma and statecraft. It is said that Bhishma gave Yudhishthira the knowledge of shanti parva and told him all the tactics and essentials required for ruling a kingdom. He advised Yudhishthira to not leave the path of dharma under any circumstances.
After seeking his blessings and knowledge of statecraft, Yudhishthira went away. Just when Krishna was about to leave, Bhishma stopped him and asked him, “Lord, why am I facing such a painful death?” Krishna asked him in reply, “Bhishma, do you know about what you have done in your past lives?” Bhishma responded’ “I remember of what i have done in my past 100 lives and I cannot remember that I have hurt even an insect!” Krishna responded, “though you have never harmed anyone in your past 100 lives, but during your 101st birth, you were a king. One day, while going out for horse riding, you saw a centipede on your horse’s neck. You picked him up with your sword and threw him back. The centipede fell on his back on a thorny bush and the thorns were stuck on his back in such a manner that the more he tries to release himself, the more he ended up hurting himself. The centipede stayed alive in that condition for 18 days. This was your adharma to which you were destined to face the consequences. But since, in your next 100 lives, you were so pious and helped everyone that your punishment could not be bestowed upon you. But when, on the day of Draupadi’s cheerharan, you remained a silent witness to the evil act and did not raised your voice against it, your dharma and virtuous deed all went in vain. And this is you today, facing the consequences of your adharma, your sin; facing the same pain, in the same way, as faced by that centipede.” Bhishma joined his hands and seeked blessings from Krishna. Bhishma waisted for 58 nights for the winter solstice or the first night of uttarayan to leave soul from his body. It is said that after his death he attained salvation because of all the good deeds he did in his life. He was granted Maatru Lok (even above heaven).