- Bhishma, “the terrible,” is one of the most impor-tant characters in the great epic MAHABHARATA. He was the son of the river goddess Ganga (see GANGES) and the first son of the king Shantanu. In his old age, Shantanu wished to take another wife, Satyavati, but the woman insisted that any son of hers become king. As a devoted son Bhishma thereupon took a vow that he would never take the throne; as a wise man, he also vowed never to take a wife or father children.Bhishma’s efforts to obtain wives for Satyavati’s son Vichitravirya proved his undoing. When he seized a woman named Amba as a potential bride, she begged to be returned to her country to marry another man, and Bhishma released her. However, her chosen love rejected her, and she returned to Bhishma. This time he refused to marry her to Vichitravirya. Enraged, Amba vowed to kill Bhishma one day, although he had earned the boon that he could not be killed without his consent. Amba angrily haunted the Earth, returning in male form as Shikhandi to fight Bhishma in the great war. Because of her presence Bhishma was killed in that battle, as he resigned himself to death.Bhishma’s half brother Vichitravirya failed to produce an heir; after his death his widows Ambika and Ambalika needed someone to father their children. Bhishma learned of another half brother, VYASA, the “author” (or compiler) of the Mahabharata. Vyasa was a renunciant, but he con-sented to couple with the two women. They bore PANDU and DHRITARASHTRA, the progenitors of the two sets of cousins whose war over the land of the Kurus is the subject of the great epic. Thus, Bhishma is related through his father to both sides in the conflict. He is called, therefore, great-uncle to them, though he is not their direct progenitor.Since Dhritarashtra was blind and Pandu died when his children were very young, Bhishma became a father figure to both the PANDAVAS and the KAURAVAS. In the great battle Bhishma became the general for the Kaurava side, the side of the usurpers. He was mortally wounded when ARJUNA stepped out from behind Shikandhi (Amba rein-carnated) to shoot him. He lingered for 58 days before dying, giving discourses to YUDHISHTHIRA that make up the majority of the Shantiparvan section of the Mahabharata. A chapter of the Mahabharata called Bhishmaparvan recounts his role in the story.Further reading: Swami Veda Bharati, Introducing Mahabharata Bhishma, Together with an English Transla-tion of the Bhishma-Stava-Raja (Rishikesh: Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama, 2002); J. A. B. van Buitenen, trans., The Mahabharata, Vol. 1, The Book of the Beginnings, Vol. 2, The Book of the Assembly Hall, Vol. 3, The Book of Virata and the Book of Effort (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973–78); P. C. Roy, trans., The Mahab-harata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, 12 vols. (Calcutta: Bharata Karyalaya Press, 1888–96).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.