The Mahabharata is undoubtedly one of the greatest epic poems ever written.
It tells many stories of many people & events but one character that is present from soon after it starts until just before it ends is Bhishma.
The story of this great sage & warrior is interlaced with most of the other tales & characters throughout the entire poem.
I’d like to tell his story briefly here.
There was once a King of the Kuru clan called Shantanu. He saw the Goddess Ganga (The personification of the Ganges) & fell in love with her immediately. She agreed to marry him on several conditions:
He should never ask who she was or from where she came.
He should never interfere with her actions, whether they seemed good or bad.
He should never be angry with her under any circumstances.
He should never speak badly to her.
King Shantanu agreed to her seemingly simple conditions convinced that none of them should ever pose a problem.
They adored each other & lived in perfect happiness except for one thing. Every time Ganga gave birth to a child, she would take it to the Ganges & cast it into the water, leaving it to drown. She would then return to the palace radiant & smiling to continue her life as though nothing had happened. A total of seven sons were born & dispatched in this way.
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King Shantanu was horrified but dared not intervene until, after the birth of his eighth son, he finally broke down & demanded to know why she must repeatedly commit such terrible atrocities. Without any hesitation Ganga tells him everything he wants to know & promises to spare the child & return him to his father when he is old enough. She then promptly disappears into the waters of the Ganges taking the child with her.
What she tells him is this:
She had come to the world of men to assist the eight Vasus (Elementals) in their redemption after committing an act of theft. One of the Vasus (Prabhasa) had asked the other seven to help him steal a sacred, wish-granting cow for his wife. Their punishment was to endure the pains of a physical incarnation. Ganga had agreed to be their mother & to make their incarnation as short as possible. She had almost completed her work when the King interfered & stopped her.
The eighth son was Prabhasa himself & had been sentenced to a longer incarnation as he had been the instigator of the theft. So actually everything had gone to plan. King Shantanu was mortified at his mistake &, thereafter, devoted himself to a spiritual life.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
One day, again on the banks of the Ganges, he met a beautiful boy playing all alone with the water. Ganga appeared to him & introduced him to his son, whom she was now returning. The King was overjoyed & returned to the palace jubilant with his son. Ganga, of course, had raised the child to almost godly status & he was also well versed in the arts of politics & war. His name was Devavrata. King Shantanu adored his son & was overjoyed to have an heir at last.
Four years later King Shantanu met a young woman called Satyavati. He fell in love with her immediately. She had been found in the belly of a fish by her adopted father, & was cursed by a terrible smell of fish, until a wandering holy man cured her with his love, leaving her with a very saintly son by the name of Vyasa. The authorship of the entire Mahabharata is attributed to Vyasa.
King Shantanu went straight to her father & asked to marry her. Her father said that he would only agree if the first born son of this union would become the king’s heir. King Shantanu of course could not agree. Devavrata was his heir & he could not possibly disinherit him. He left utterly destroyed, & returned to the palace in misery.
Prince Devavrata quizzed his father many times as to what was the cause of his misery. King Shantanu made many excuses but never told him the truth. The prince started to make enquiries elsewhere & finally arrived at the house of Satyavati. As soon as he heard the story he vowed to her father that he renounced his crown & asked that his father should be allowed to marry Satyavati.
Her father then complained that the prince would have sons & they would make war against his grandsons & try to reclaim the kingdom. Without any hesitation Prince Devavrata vowed there & then that he would never take a wife & that he would never enjoy the pleasures of a woman, completely eliminating the possibility of any descendants.
This act totally absolved him of the crime of taking the cow to satisfy his wife’s desire in the other world. He was showered with blessings & granted the gift of being totally invincible in battle & the power to choose the moment of his own death. From this moment on he was known as Bhishma.
Bhishma vowed to serve & protect the line of the Kuru clan for the rest of his days. There were many times when he would have preferred to give up his life & return home but his vow of love & devotion, to his family, kept him tied to his duties.
He lived through many generations, protecting & advising all the kings that came after his father. These included the Pandavas & the Kauravas who faced each other on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, where Krishna delivered his teaching of the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna. He sacrificed himself towards the end of this battle in order to allow the Pandavas to win, as they were destined to, but could not while Bhishma was living.
His death finally comes at the hand of Shikhandi, a reincarnation of Amba, one of three sisters that he won in a contest for his half-brother to marry. She was, however, already in love & he releases her to return to her betrothed. Her lover rejects her as someone else’s property& she returns to Bhishma. It is now too late to marry his brother & Bhishma refuses to marry her because of his vow. She is left alone & unwanted. wandering the Earth in hatred for the rest of her days, determined to find a way to kill Bhishma. She has to die & be reborn as a man before her wish is granted on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Bhisma’s Tale: Khana Spector © All rights reserved
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