Indian Mythology (by ApamNapat)

Bhishma

Mahabharata


There was a king named Mahabhishak who belonged to the Bharata Dynasty. He ruled according to truth and justice and was rewarded with heaven upon his death. Once, while he was seated in the court of Indra, the king of heaven, the Goddess Ganga (she is the goddess of the sacred river Ganges), happened to visit there. Due to a passing breeze, her dress got rearranged. All those present at the court averted their eyes out of respect for the Goddess. However, Mahabhishak, who was enamored by her beauty, kept staring at her. This angered Lord Brahma. He cursed Mahabhishak saying, "Mahabhishak, since you kept staring at Ganga when she was in a compromising position, I curse you to be reborn as a king in the Bharata dynasty. Ganga will be your wife there and will torment you by her actions and cause you much grief."

Meanwhile, the eight Vasus, who were celestial brothers who resided in heaven, happened to offend the sage Vasishta. The eldest of them was Dhyou, who incurred the most of the Rishi's wrath. The sage cursed them to be born as mortals and suffer. They pleaded with him to reduce his curse and at last, relenting, the sage said, "The seven of you who merely acted according to your elder brother's orders will not have to suffer your mortal fate for long. However, your elder brother Dhyou, who was the perpetrator of this mischief, will have to live for a long time as a mortal, and suffer for his sins. You must know that the river Ganga is fated to be the wife of Shantanu, who was Mahabhishak in his previous birth. All of you will be born as their sons."

According to Brahma's curse, Mahabhishak was reborn as the son of King Prathiba in the Bharata dynasty. One day, when Shantanu was relaxing on the banks of the river Ganga, he met a woman of unsurpassed beauty. He fell in love immediately and asked her to be his wife. The lady said, "O Prince. I consent to be your wife, but only upon this condition. You must never do something which I do not approve of. No matter what I do, you must not question my actions, regardless of how strange they may seem to you." So much was the Shantanu in love with this maiden, that he accepted her rather open-ended condition. He married her and brought her to his father's house as his wife. Some time after this King Prathiba passed away and Shantanu became the King.

In due course of time, a son was born to him. As we know, this was one of the Vasus, fulfilling Vasishta's curse. Shantanu was overjoyed. His joy quickly turned to grief, as his queen took the child to the river Ganga and drowned the baby. However, bound by his promise, and his passionate devotion to his wife, he dared not question his wife on her outrageous conduct. Seven more sons were born to him. The next six children suffered the fate of his first, being drowned in the river. When the eighth child was born to him, the queen once again went to perform her ghastly ritual. This time, Shantanu could not contain himself. He remonstrated with his wife and asked her to explain her conduct.

The queen revealed herself to be the Goddess Ganga. She said, "O King. You have broken your promise never to question my actions. I must leave you now. Know that you were cursed to be born as a mortal, because you stared at me in Indra's court. It was also foretold that I will be your wife and make your life miserable by doing actions that will cause you immense grief. The seven children that were born to us and drowned by me in the river, were the seven younger Vasus, who had requested me to kill them as soon as they were born, to release them from the curse of Vashista. The eighth son that you have prevented me from killing is the eldest of Vasu, named Dhyou. He has been cursed to lead a long life of sorrow by the sage Vasishta. I am going to take him away with me now. I will send him back to you once he has completed his education."

The King pleaded with his wife to forget his outburst and stay with him. However, this could not be done as it was time for the Goddess to go. She went away with her son. The king was filled with grief. Shantanu spent most of his time by the river Ganga, hoping to catch a glimpse of either his wife or his son. Years passed, and finally the quest of the king was rewarded. One day, he saw that the mighty flow of the river had been dammed, by a structure constructed entirely of arrows. A youth of dazzling aspect was seen constructing the dam, by firing arrows into it. The king asked the youth for his identity. At this moment the Goddess Ganga arose from the river and presented the youth to the king as his son. She had named him Devaratha. She said, "O King, as I had promised you years ago, I have brought your son Devaratha back to you. He has been taught all the arts that Shukra, the Asura Guru knows and has learned the scriptures from Brihaspati, the Guru of the Devas. He has learnt the art of war and the knowledge of divine Astras (missiles) from the great Parashurama. He is in every way worthy of being your crown prince. My duty on earth is over now, take your son with you and anoint him as your successor. He is a worthy scion of the Bharata dynasty."

The king tried to persuade Ganga to accompany them, but she held steadfast in her refusal, as her earthly duties were over and she was anxious to return to her celestial abode. Though he could not persuade his wife to accompany him, Shantanu was very much overjoyed upon being reunited with his son. Indeed, any father would be proud of such a son, so devoted was he to his father and to the cause of truth and justice. He was famed for his honesty, as having never uttered an untruth, or improper words on anger. The people of the kingdom loved prince Devaratha very much and were eagerly awaiting the day when he would be the king. A few years passed. Shantanu was very happy after a long time. He spent most of his time with his son, teaching him the intricacies of statecraft, preparing him to rule the kingdom which will one day be his.

This period of joy in Shantanu's life could not last long, as he had been cursed to suffer. One day, he went to visit the chief of the fishermen in his country, to discuss the question of taxes. The chief was away from home. His daughter Satyavati was at home, and she received the king. She was a girl of extreme beauty. In addition to her beauty, the very air around her was scented with an intoxicating aroma, which had been bequeathed upon her as a boon from a sage. The king was filled with a lust for this woman. He immediately asked her to be his wife. Satyavati would not return an immediate answer, but asked the king to address this question to her father.

When the chief of fishermen returned shortly, the king requested his permission to pay his addresses to Satyavati. The fisherman thought for a while and said, "O King! I am very much honored that you have expressed a wish to marry my daughter. Indeed, it is impossible to think of a more worthy groom for her. However, there is an issue which must be resolved before this marriage can take place. You must know that she is my adopted daughter. Once while I was fishing in the river, I caught a fish of very large size. When I cut it open to cook it, I found a beautiful baby girl inside. I adopted her as my daughter, as I was childless. Such are the origins of Satyavati. Since she was born inside a fish, there was the odor of fish that used to cling to her when she was a young girl. Later, this was changed into a pleasant fragrance, by the boon of a Rishi. I have consulted astrologers regarding her future, and all of them are unanimous in predicting that she will wed a great king. They also predicted that her son will become the king after her husband. Now, everyone knows that your son Devaratha is going to inherit the kingdom after you. Unless you can guarantee that the child born to you and Satyavati will be your heir, I cannot consent to this marriage."

Naturally, Shantanu could not agree to this condition, as the kingdom belonged by right of birth to his son Devaratha. Besides, he was very fond of his son, and could not bear the thought of disinheriting him. Crestfallen, he returned to his palace. Try as he might, he could not put the beautiful form of Satyavati out of his mind. He became listless. He would spent hours by himself, deep in thought. A less perceptive son than Devaratha would have been alarmed by these signs. The prince was very much troubled when he saw that some care was weighing heavily upon Shantanu's mind. Being the soul of tact, he did not want to ask his father directly. He was sure that his father would have confided in him, had confidence been possible. Instead, he questioned the charioteer of his father, as to the places his father had visited recently. He at once perceived that among the places that his father had been recently, the only unusual place was that of the chief of the fishermen. He went there himself and upon beholding Satyavati, immediately perceived that this maiden must be the cause of his father's listlessness. What he could not understand was that having fallen in love with this woman, why his father had not been able to take her as his wife. He met the Satyavati's father and enquired as to why the marriage was not taking place. The fisherman related the story of Satyavati's birth and the prophecy concerning her children. The fisherman said, "O Prince, I set forth the condition that only the children of Satyavati should inherit the kingdom after your father. Your father could not bear the thought of disinheriting you, and hence the marriage shall not take place."

Prince Devaratha loved his father more than he loved the thought of becoming a king. He said, "If this is the only objection to the match. I would be glad to remove it. I assure you that I shall renounce my claim to the throne, paving the way for Satyavati's children to inherit the kingdom. Now you would be able to agree to this match and make my father very happy."

On hearing this, the fisherman replied: "O Prince. All of us know that once you have uttered a promise, it is inviolate. I now have full confidence that the sons of Satyavati will inherit the throne, as you have promised it. However, I fear that your children (for you will marry soon and have issue), will not be similarly reticent. They will stake a claim to the kingdom, and my grandchildren will know no peace. This is my main objection to the match."

Devaratha thought for a while and said, "What you say is definitely true. For myself, I can assure you that I have renounced the throne, but I might not be in a position to control the actions of my children. Therefore, to forward the cause of my father's happiness. I vow that I will remain a Brahmacharin (celibate) all my life. I shall never marry, never have any children who can rival your grandchildren for the throne of my father's kingdom."

The moment Devaratha uttered his terrible vow, the Devas appeared in the sky and praised his actions. There was a shower of flowers on him and the air was scented with a divine fragrance. All the Gods praised his action of supreme renunciation, and sang the praises of his devotion to his father. From this day onwards, Devaratha was known as Bhishma, which means one who had made a terrible vow. The fisherman consented immediately to the marriage, and Bhishma escorted his step-mother-to-be to his father's palace.

When King Shantanu heard of the terrible vow his son had made, he was rendered speechless with his admiration for his son. He embraced his son and said, "O Bhishma, You have made such a great sacrifice for the sake of my happiness. As long as this world lasts, your fame shall remain undiminished. I grant you a boon that death shall not be able to approach you, till such a time that you yourself desire to die. Old age shall not slow your limbs, nor confuse your wits. You will be a matchless warrior all your life, watching over the welfare of the Kurus." In return, the King got his son's promise that as long as the Kurus were under a threat, Bhishma would not choose death.

Bhishma's life would have many sorrows, and he was twice accursed, as he could not even die until the throne of the Kurus was safe. The curse of Vasishta would mean that he would lead a long life, and suffer great sorrows. He was to see his clansmen engage in a vicious battle. He would be forced to choose a side against his sense of justice, all because of the promise he had made his father. At last, he was able to embrace death at the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Still, it was not a bad life. He was a matchless warrior, feared by his enemies all his life, and was never defeated in battle, till he chose death in the battlefield.

The marriage of Satyavati and Shantanu was duly celebrated. Two sons were born to them, named Chitrasena and Vichitraveerya. Some time after this, Shantanu passed away. At this time the sons of Satyavati were mere children and therefore, Satyavati ruled as regent in their stead. She was ably assisted by Bhishma in running the kingdom. The kingdom was secure from the assaults of their neighboring kingdoms, as none could match Bhishma in battle, and therefore wisely refrained from attacking the Kurus.

When the elder son Chitrasena came of age, he was crowned the king of the Kurus. Unfortunately his reign did not last long. He happened to incur the wrath of a Gandharva, who was also named Chitrasena. The Gandharva challenged the young king to battle, and in the ensuing duel, Chitrasena was killed. Satyavati was heart broken. Vichitraveerya was duly crowned the king, and ruled with the assistance of Bhishma. One day, Satyavati called Bhishma to her apartments and said, "O Prince, You have been the bedrock of our kingdom. My son and I are very much indebted to you for the protection that you have afforded us from our foes. I feel that my son is now old enough to marry. It is time that we sought a suitable alliance for him. What is your opinion?"

Bhishma replied, "O Mother. I made a vow that I will protect you and your sons and establish their right to rule over the Kurus. I made this vow to forward my father's happiness. You owe me nothing. I do agree that it is time that my brother got married. I have just now heard that the King of Kashi is holding a Swayamvara gathering in which eligible suitors will be present. Either the princess chooses her husband out of her own free will, or her hand is awarded to the king who fulfills a challenge laid forth in the proceedings). His daughters are reputed to be very beautiful. They will make ideal wives for my brother."

Satyavati said, "It would be best if you went to this Swayamvara and espoused the cause of my son. He is too young to undertake such a task for himself. I am sure that your words will carry a lot more weight. Go to this Swayamvara and bring back my daughters-in-law."

According to his step-mother's suggestion, Bhishma went to the Swayamvara, being held at the court of Kashi. Many of his fellow kings were surprised to see him there, as his vow of celibacy was very well known. Some of them thought that he had merely come to take part in the festivities, as a Swayamvara was accompanied by a week long celebration in which there would be many feasts, performances of dance and music etc. Some of them thought that he was planning to discard his vow, and had come to seek a wife among the princesses of Kashi.

The day of the Swayamvara arrived at last. Once the king of Kashi had performed the introductions, Bhishma stood up and claimed all the three girls as his brother's brides. He challenged the kings present to a trial of strength, if any one wished to challenge his brother's claim. After uttering his challenge, he took the three maidens in his chariot and proceeded towards his kingdom. The kings that had assembled were incensed at this irregular proceedings. They knew him to be a great warrior, but they could not let such an insult go unchallenged. They made war upon Bhishma.

It was a very unequal combat. Although the kings ranged against him were many in number, and were no mean warriors, Bhishma was infinitely superior to them all. He routed all of them in battle. The only king to stand up to him to a certain extent was King Salya. Indeed, they were quite well matched in battle, for although Salya lacked Bhishma's experience in battle, he made up for it in enthusiasm. Such was the fierceness of the battle between these warriors, that even the Devas came out in the heavens to watch its progress. Salya was a very skilled archer and sorely harassed Bhishma. Bhishma was very much impressed with his opponent. He decided to end the battle quickly and therefore drew the Aindra missile, which had been given to him by Indra, and with it destroyed the horses and chariot of Salya. He affixed the Varuni Missile which had been given to him by Varuna, and aimed it at Salya, resolving to end his life. At this point, Amba, the eldest princess of Kashi, beseeched him to spare the life of the valiant warrior. Conceding her prayer, Bhishma stayed his Astra and spared Salya's life. Seeing Salya's defeat, the other kings too conceded the battle and returned to their kingdoms.

Bhishma brought the three Kashi princesses, Amba, Ambika and Ambalika to his step mother, and went away to make preparations for their wedding with his brother, the king Vichitraveerya. However, the eldest princess summoned him to her presence and said, "O Prince! You have carried away the three of us by force from our father's kingdom and are trying to marry us to your brother. However, even before the Swayamvara, I was in love with King Salya, whose life you spared in battle. I had fully resolved to choose him as my husband in the Swayamvara. Knowing this, and the path of Dharma, you will realize that I cannot marry your brother. Please do what you feel is right."

Bhishma saw the force of her argument. He said, "You should have made this clear when I abducted you! However, it does not matter much. I will make arrangements for you to be escorted to the kingdom of Salya. I will dower you like I would have for a sister of mine. Have no fear, you will be able to marry Salya."

In accordance with his promise, Bhishma sent Amba to the court of Salya, escorted by his chief minister and accompanied by many riches. When the entourage reached Salya, it suffered an unexpected check. Salya refused to marry Amba, as she had been won from him in fair combat by Bhishma. He said, "O Princess. Bhishma, the illustrious son of Shantanu won you from me in fair combat. He has defeated me in the presence of my peers. After this shame, I cannot marry you. Return to Bhishma and ask him for a solution for this impasse."

Heart broken, Amba returned to Hastinapura, the capital of the Kurus. Since she had already chosen Salya as her husband, Vichitraveerya also refused to marry her. In desperation, she beseeched Bhishma to marry her as no one else would. She accused him of forcing her to such a desperate measure. She even persuaded Satyavati to try and force Bhishma into marrying her. Bhishma sympathized with her plight, but would not break his vow upon any account.

Amba was filled with hatred for Bhishma, as the cause of ruining her life. She sought a champion to defeat Bhishma in battle and either force him to marry her or failing that, kill him. Since everyone knew Bhishma's prowess as a warrior, no one would come forth to espouse her cause. At last, she managed to convince Parashurama, the Guru of Bhishma to try and persuade the Kuru prince. Parashurama tried his best to convince Bhishma, but was unable to persuade him. He then challenged Bhishma to battle. The combat raged for a long time. In the end, Parashurama was forced to yield. He said to Amba, "My child, I tried my best, but my disciple is far too great a warrior to be defeated by me. I advise you to forget your vengeance, marry someone else and be happy."

However, Amba would not take this advice. Upon consideration, she decided that only the Gods can grant a boon for her that would lead to Bhishma's death. She went away to the forest and indulged in a terrible penance to Karthikeya (Skanda), the command-in-chief of the Deva army, the son of Lord Shiva. At last Karthikeya appeared in front of her and gave her a garland of flowers, saying that who ever wears this garland would be able to slay Bhishma. Much encouraged, Amba again tried to find a champion who would wear this garland and slay Bhishma. Once again, she found that no one would even try. She wandered from kingdom to kingdom in her quest. At last, she visited the king Drupada, the king of the Panchalas. He was renowned as a great warrior and also happened to be her kinsman. When she found that even he was unwilling, she was enraged and threw away the garland in the court. No one would even dare to touch the garland. The king took the garland with the help of a stick and tossed it on a tree in his garden. It lay there for a long time until someone _did_ pick it up and wear the garland. However, this was not going to happen for a very many years.

Amba then once again performed a tough penance, this time beseeching Shiva. The lord appeared before her and granted her the boon that she would be able to slay Bhishma in her next birth. Amba could not wait for that day to arrive. She lit a pyre and immolated herself. She was born as Shikandi, the daughter of a concubine of Drupada. One day, this girl happened to see the beautiful garland lying on the a branch in a tree in the garden. She climbed the tree, wore the garland, and went to her father's court. When Drupada saw that his daughter had worn this garland, he became afraid of Bhishma's wrath. According to his ministers' advice, he abandoned his daughter in the forest. As fate would have it, the daughter was found by some sages in the hermitage. They learned her story from her, and told her of her previous birth as Amba. According to their advice, she once again prayed to Lord Shiva, and was turned into a boy named Shikandi. She returned to her father's court. This time, Drupada could not exile him (her), as he feared Shiva's wrath as well. He brought him up as his son.

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Last Modified At: Wed Nov 17 23:00:33 2004