“In my beginning is my end.”  These words of TS Eliot’s have a certain resonance when one looks at the career of Bhishma in the Mahabharata. Bhisma had a life before his arrival on earth. The story goes that while returning from Brahmaloka, Ganga came upon the eight heavenly Vasu gods who were all in a terrible state. When she enquired, the gods told her that for a minor offence the maharishi Vashistha had put a curse on them. By this curse, they would have to be born as humans.
They pleaded with Ganga to be their mother. She agreed and said that they would be born out of the union between her and Santanu, the son of Prateep, the king of the Kuru dynasty. The gods agreed and they told Ganga that as soon as they were born, she should throw them into the river to die. But Ganga’s condition was that one of them would have to live so that her union with Santanu would not be in vain. (Mbh: Adi parva, adhyaya 91: slokas: 18-19).
Ganga thus married Santanu on the condition, agreed to by the latter, that he would not ever stop her from doing anything. Out of this marriage eight sons were born; seven of the sons Ganga drowned in the river much to the dismay of Santanu. When Ganga tried to drown the eighth son, Santanu stopped her. Ganga reminded Santanu of his pledge, and left him. (Mbh: Adi parva: adhyaya 92: slokas: 34-55).
The epic further revealed that this son was Dyaus Vasu and that Vashistha had said that he would be a mahatma, and that there would be no one like him on earth: he would be dharmic, learned in all the shastras, a favourite of his father, and would give up sexual contact with women. (Mbh: Adi parva: adhyaya 93: slokas: 39-40). This son grew up to be called Devavrata and Gangeya. (Mbh: Adi parva: adhyaya 93: sloka: 47).
Devavrata grew up to be a handsome prince and unmatched warrior – the heir of Santanu.
One day, he found that his father was forlorn and uninterested in everything. On enquiry, he discovered that while out hunting Santanu had been smitten by a fisherman’s daughter called Satyavati. Santanu had visited her father and sought Satyavati’s hand in marriage.
The father agreed in principle but he put forward one condition. He said that Santanu would have to agree to make the son that would be born from this marriage as his successor to the throne. Santanu could not agree to this condition and hence his lovelorn state.
On learning this Devavrata proceeded with an entourage to seek out the fisherman. In the presence of all his companions, he made two promises to the fisherman. One was that he would never ascend the throne; and second that he would take the pledge of brahmacharya, and thus remain celibate all his life so there would be no sons who could claim the throne. On hearing these promises, the fisherman agreed to give his daughter to Santanu as a bride.
The sacrifice that these promises contained impressed even the inhabitants of paradise, who rained flowers and declared that henceforward Devavrata would be known as Bhishma. When Santanu came to know what had transpired he blessed Bhishma with the words, “As long as you want to live, you will not die. Death will come to you only with your permission.” Bhishma thus acquired the power of ichhamrityu –– the power to die when he wished to die. (Mbh: Adi parva: adhyaya 94: slokas: 60-103).
Bhishma, even as a young man, was a unique individual. He had agency over death – the one thing that is inevitable in life. The power to die only when he wished to die is only a step behind immortality since theoretically Bhishma may not have wanted to die. There is an interplay here between agency and predestination. He had come to earth under the curse and blessing of Vashistha; he had survived because of Ganga’s wish. All these had been pre-scripted for him. But he had control over what was inevitable for all humans. Death would come to Bhishma only when summoned by Bhishma.
Given his age and his position in the Kuru dynasty as Santanu’s first born, Bhishma was the eminence grise in the court of Dhritarashtra at Hastinapur. This is an important point because Bhishma had no blood ties with Dhritarashtra. Bhishma is Santanu’s son; and Dhritarashtra was sired by Vyasa. Because of his position and because he was a warrior par excellence, Bhishma was the natural first choice to lead the Kaurava troops at Kurukshetra.
It is in the parva named after Bhishma –– the sixth in the epic and the first to narrate the history of the great war – that matters begin to get complicated and puzzling.
In the very beginning of this parva – in fact even before the description of the battle has begun –- a downcast Sanjaya brings to Dhritarashtra the news that Bhishma is nihata. The statement is unequivocal and reiterated in the next sloka with the words, “The son of Santanu, Bhishma is nihata.” The word nihata is repeated. (Mbh: Bhishma parva: adhyaya 13: slokas: 1-3). This raises two problems.
One, why announce Bhishma’s death even before the description of the battle has begun? Kaliprasanna Sinha, who, in the second half of the nineteenth century, translated the epic into Bengali prose taking it sloka by sloka not only recognised this problem but addressed it in a footnote. Sinha wrote that on hearing the news that Bhishma was nihata, a surprised Dhritarashtra asked Sanjaya to narrate to him the details of the battle. Hence the first sloka of the Bhagavad Gita.
Thus, according to Sinha, the announcement anticipates the Gita (Sinha: i: 879). This explanation is plausible as a narrative device since it helps to understand the insertion of the Gita at this juncture –– Dhritarashtra’s question about what is going in Kurukshetra, followed by Sanjaya’s description, which begins with the Gita.
The second problem is more difficult to resolve. How can someone who has the boon of ichhamrityu be slain (nihata) in battle?
The issue becomes more complicated as the narrative progresses and readers are presented with a graphic description of the battle on the tenth day of the war. The epic says on that day, pierced by arrows all over his body – the arrows left a space of only two fingers between them – Bhishma contemplated that this was the right moment to die and the rishis and the vasus in the sky concurred with him (Mbh: Bhishma parva: adhyaya:14; slokas: 34-37).
He continued to fight a little longer but soon fell from his chariot. The arrows stuck in his body did not allow his body to touch the ground, and so Bhishma lay on a bed of arrows. He realised that this was that time of the year when the sun was in the south and it was not the best moment to die. He heard the same message from heaven and announced that “I am alive and I will wait for the sun to journey to the north.” (Mbh: Bhishma parva: adhyaya:14; slokas: 97-102.)
Bhishma asserts that he has the definite freedom to choose the time of his death. (Mbh: Bhishma parva: adhyaya: 14; sloka: 109). But Sanjaya, while reporting this incident to Dhritarashtra, says that after Bhishma had been slain (nihata), the sons of Dhritarashtra did not know what to do (Mbh: Bhishma parva: adhyaya: 14: slokas: 112-114). The word nihata is repeated again in sloka 122; and in adhyaya 15 in slokas 3 and 5. In sloka 6 the verb killed (badh) is used.
This is the nub of the puzzle: is Bhisma alive or nihata (slain/dead)?
Within a space of a few slokas, the Mahabharata is making two different and contradictory statements. According to Bhishma himself he is alive and has chosen his time of death. But the epic is also saying that he is nihata. He is alive since we hear him asking for a pillow, asking for water, advising Duryodhona and counselling Karna.
Later on in the Mahabharata, in the Santi and Anushasana parvas, he instructs Yudhishthira on kingship or rajadharma. So why the repeated use of the word nihata? The word recurs so many times in the context of Bhisma, as recounted above, it cannot be written off as a slip – spots on the text as it were.
A simple lexicographical solution offers itself. Apte in his dictionary gives the following meanings of nihata: Struck down, smitten, killed, slain (Apte:1957-59). It is possible to argue that the epic is using the word nihata in the sense of “struck down” or “smitten” and not in the sense of killed and slain. Such a reading would solve the puzzle at the cost of diminishing the richness of what the epic is trying to convey.
I would suggest that something more significant is at work here. Bhishma is alive and not alive – however bizarre such a statement sounds in mundane and literal terms. There are some clues in the text that indeed this was the state in which Bhishma placed himself post his fall from his chariot.
Slokas 95 and 96 in the 14th adhyaya says that after Bhishma fell from his chariot, he was enveloped by the ambience of heaven (svargia bhava) and that the clouds brought forth rain and there was an earthquake. Such a phenomenon would suggest that this was not just a fall of any very powerful warrior, but more than that – it was the fall of an extraordinary figure, maybe even a suprahuman one.
This suggestion is strengthened by Sanjaya’s report to Dhritarashtra that Bhishma, on the bed of arrows following yoga, began to chant (jap) the maha upanishad (Mbh: Bhishma parva: adhyaya 14: sloka: 125). Moreover, the epic says that after learning that Bhishma would wait to die till the sun began its northward journey, his mother Ganga, the daughter of Himalaya, sent the maharishis, as swans, to Bhishma.
The maharishis asked: why would a mahatma like Bhisma depart for the next life when the sun was in the south? Hearing this, Bhishma looked at them and after some thought told them: “As long the sun is in the south I will by no means go to the next life. This is what is in my mind.” (Mbh: Bhishma parva: adhyaya:14: slokas: 102-107).
In this context it is worth noting that when Bhishma, lying on his bed of arrows, asked for water, various kinds of food and potable items were brought to him. Seeing all these, Bhishma remarked, “Now I am no longer in a position to accept any items belonging to the human world. I have been delivered from the human world, I am on a bed of arrows and waiting for the sun and the moon to alter their movements. I will drink heavenly water, not earthly water.” And it is heavenly water that Arjuna provides to Bhishma (Mbh: Bhishma parva: adhyaya:16: slokas: 10-25).
All these pieces of evidence gleaned from the end of the Bhishma parva would strengthen the conclusion that he was no longer inhabiting the world of humans. He was in some undefined supramundane sphere.
The description that his body did not fall to the ground but was propped up above the ground by arrows is perhaps the epic’s way of indicating metaphorically that Bhishma was no longer connected with the earth, he was above the earth but he still had not attained paradise. It is possible that the word nihata was used to signify that he was no longer a part of the material world. But the epic could not kill Bhishma because he had agency over his own death.
Bhishma’s last moments in the world of humans are narrated at the end of the Anushasana parva. Here we learn that when Yudhishthira saw that the sun was making its way north, he with all his brothers and relatives travelled to where Bhishma lay on his bed of arrows. After exchanging greetings, Bhishma tells Yudhishthira that he had been on the bed of arrows for fifty-eight days and these had seemed like a hundred years to him (Mbh: Anushasana parva: adhyaya: 145: sloka: 27).
It would not be unfair to read this as an admission on Bhishma’s part that he had suffered and felt pain as any human being would. A part of him, it would appear, is still anchored in the world of human beings. But the suprahuman dimension of his “existence” is reiterated in the description of his death or departure from this world. The relevant slokas say that the unshackled wind of Bhishma’s life travelled upwards. Everyone, including Vyasa and other rishis who were present, was astonished to witness this.
Then Bhisma began to rid himself of his limbs and through the power of yoga each of his limbs became free of arrows. Within a short time his body became free of arrows, much to the wonder of even Vyasa and Krishna. Then his life spirit broke through his head and flew into the sky and disappeared. Thus, the epic says, the greatest of the Bharata lineage merged with Time. The gods rained flowers and beat drums (Mbh: Anushasana parva: adhyaya: 146: slokas: 2-11).
It is clear that Bhishma did not die in the manner of ordinary mortals. The passing of life from his body was an ethereal phenomenon.
It is also worth noting that as in the case of all human beings, the passing of a son was mourned by the mother. Ganga, Bhishma’s mother, mourned him and was inconsolable. She asked how he could be slain by Shikhandi –– the word nihata reappears here in the mouth of Ganga. Vyasa and Krishna consoled her and explained to Ganga that it was Arjuna who had slain (again nihata) Bhishma following kshatriyadharma on the battlefield (Mbh: Anushasana parva: adhyaya: 146: slokas: 23-32).
We are thus not free of the conundrum of how a person who is declared to be nihata so many times, including by his own mother, was alive for 58 days and had been able to provide long disquisitions on aspects of ruling, kingship, dharma and so on through two of the longest parvas, save the Adi parva, of the epic –– the Santi and the Anushasana parvas.
The only plausible explanation seems to accept that Bhishma is not entirely human. He was originally one of the Vasu gods – Dyaus Vasu – who had come to earth in human form under a curse and a blessing of Vashistha. As a god he cannot die, as a human he is mortal. This paradox is resolved in the epic by bestowing on Bhishma the agency over his own death. Like any human warrior, he is declared to be nihata but this is not followed immediately by his mrityu since he has the boon to choose the time of his own mrityu.
It could be said that this is a situation where the universal principle of mortality –– operative in the case of all human beings – is clashing with the magical principle of a boon.
Thus Bhishma, after his fall from the chariot and on the bed of arrows, is not inhabiting the sphere occupied by ordinary mortals. This is a liminal space at the limit of life and death where the ambience is heavenly but Bhishma is able to talk and counsel Yudhishthira and set out the principles of rajadharma. Such a situation, where a universal principle and an exceptional boon that transgresses the universal principle are overlapping is narratively constructed and the Mahabharata invites/expects its readers/listeners to willingly suspend their mundane disbelief.
This situation is obviously unique and therefore a marker of Bhishma’s extraordinary and suprahuman status. But Bhishma is not the only character in the Mahabharata who is on the threshold of divinity and humanity. Vyasa and Vidura also straddle the spiritual and the secular worlds with equal ease.  Lying on the bed of arrows, Bhishma told the maharishis who had come to him as swans that “Where I was before, I will return there, my proper abode, when the sun moves to the north.” (Mbh: Bhishma parva: adhyaya:14: sloka:108) Thus at the moment of his mrityu, his life spirit moved skywards where the gods reside. His end was in his beginning.
While bearing sole responsibility for all aspects of this essay, I would like to thank Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Jonathan Katz, Nayanjot Lahiri and Upinder Singh for their comments and suggestions.
- Mahabharata (Mbh) edited by Haridassidhantabagis Bhattacharya in 43 volumes, Kolkata, Viswabani Prakashan, 1931-1938.
- Apte, VS (1957-59), The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary (Poona: Prasad Prakashan) 3 vols.
- Eliot, TS (1974), Collected Poems: 1909-1962 (London: Faber).
- Mukherjee, Rudrangshu, (2021), “Dharma and Caste in the Mahabharata: Some Episodic Suggestions”, The India Forum, (forthcoming).
- Sinha, Kaliprasanna, (repr.1987) Mahabharata, 2 vols, (Calcutta: Tuli-Kalam).
- TS Eliot, “East Coker” in TS Eliot (1974).
- See Mukherjee (2021) for some observations and implications of this special position of Vyasa and Vidura.