The Mahābhārata, the bigger of the two epics of Hinduism and the greatest didactic poem of the world, has held up before us many a hero fit to be emulated if not adored. And, Bhīṣma, the grand-sire of the Kaurava race, is pre-eminent among them. Ranked as next only to Kṛṣṇa, considered as God-incarnate, Bhīṣma was not only the greatest of the warriors of his times, he was also a towering intellect and a paragon of virtues.
Originally a Vasu (one of the eight attendants of Indra) he was born, due to a curse, as the eighth son of the king Śantanu in Gaṅgā, the river goddess. Gaṅgā christened him as ‘Devavrata,’ brought him up well, got him well-educated and trained under the warrior-sage Paraśurāma and then handed him back to the king Śantanu. The king took him to his capital, Hastināpura, and made him the Yuvarāja or the crown-prince.
One day, Śantanu who had gone out hunting, fell in love with Satyavatī, the daughter of the chieftain of the fishermen. When he proposed to marry her, the chieftain laid the condition that the son that would be born in her should be the heir to the throne. The king obviously could not concede the demand as it would be a great injustice to Devavrata, who was the fittest heir anointed to be so. However, the lovelorn king could neither forget the girl nor consent to the condition laid by her father. This conflict had a devastating effect on him. When Devavrata noticed it and learnt of the details, he went to the chieftain, vowed before him that he would willingly abdicate his right over the kingdom, nor would he ever marry so that his progeny could never stake its claim over it. This terrible vow earned him the name ‘Bhīṣma,’ ‘the terrible’ which stuck.
Śantanu married satyavatī and begot two sons—Citrāṅgada and Vicitravīrya. Both of them died without issues. Then, at the request of Satyavatī and as per the ‘niyoga’ custom (See NIYOGA for details.) that was prevalent during those days, sage Vyāsa raised issues in Ambikā and Ambālikā the queens of Vicitravīrya. The two sons were named Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Pāṇḍu. The former was born blind.
Bhīṣma brought them up, got them married and, they in course of time, had their own children: the hundred Kauravas and the five Pāṇḍavas. Duryodhana and Duśśāsana were the first two among the Kauravas. The Pāṇḍvas were: Yudhiṣṭhira, Bhīma, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva.
There was constant rivalry between these two groups of cousins, Duryodhana being the villain while Yudhiṣṭhira was the paragon of dharma or righteousness. Duryodhana made several attempts to decimate the Pāṇḍavas, but destiny always sided with the latter. Bhīṣma had quite a tough time in forging a working alliance between them and his sage counsels often had their effect and prevented many a crisis.
After the marriage of the Pāṇḍavas with Draupadī, Bhīṣma was instrumental in recalling them from their self-imposed exile and returning them their share of the kingdom. The Pāṇḍavas built a beauti-ful capital city and named it Indraprastha. However, Duryodhana succeeded in usurping their kingdom by jealous machinations and insulted Draupadī, the Pāṇḍava queen, in the open assembly. But their kingdom and wealth were restored to them by the intervention of the blind king Dhṛtarāṣṭra.
This truce was however shortlived. In a subsequent game of dice, Yudhiṣṭhira lost everything and when the Pāṇḍavas later demanded their kingdom back, as per the agreement, Duryodhana refused it, resulting in the well-known Kurukṣetra war. Bhīṣma was the first commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army. Though he fought valiantly he was ultimately downed by Arjuna. Since he had the special boon of dying at will, he chose to live on—though badly wounded—for a period of 58 days, till the uttarāyaṇa or the period of the northern solstice. At the behest of Kṛṣṇa, Bhīṣma gave a long discourse on the various aspects of dharma in answer to the questions raised by Yudhiṣṭhira. This section of the Mahā-bhārata known as the Śāntiparva is an invaluable source of dharma even now. He then gave up the body in yoga.
See also MAHĀBHĀRATA.