The character of Bhishma in the Mahabharata is the embodiment of the word dharma (duty). His sense of duty and loyalty never wavered. While this made him a revered character in the Mahabharata, it was also considered to be a major flaw as Bhishma was not able to stand up for injustice if it came in conflict with his loyalties. Bhishma’s decisions ultimately shaped the story of the Mahabharata.
Long before the birth of the Pandavas and the Kauravas, their kingdom of Hastinapur was ruled by King Shantanu. Bhishma, who was originally named Devavrata, was born to King Shantanu and Goddess Ganga. The union of Bhishma’s parents was sealed with a unique vow – that Shantanu would never question Ganga’s actions. Before Bhishma, the couple had seven sons, each one of whom Ganga drowned. When she was about to drown their eighth son, Bhishma, Shantanu broke his vow and asked Ganga why she was killing their children. Ganga revealed that their children were sages in a previous birth, who had been cursed by a guru named Vashishta, to be born as human beings on Earth for stealing his wish-bearing cow. She was killing them to release them from this curse. Their last son, who she was about to drown, had masterminded the theft and had been cursed with the longest life on earth. But because Shantanu had broken his vow, Ganga told him she could not live with him anymore. She took their son Bhishma with her and promised to bring him back to Shantanu after she had instilled in him enough skills to run a kingdom.
After several years, Shantanu was reunited with his son, Bhishma, who was put in charge of running his father’s kingdom. Shantanu, meanwhile, fell in love with a fisherwoman named Satyavati. This is where we see the first example of Bhishma’s extreme sense of loyalty. When Shantanu asked Satyavati’s father for her hand in marriage, he accepted the proposal but with one condition – that the children born to Satyavati become heirs to the throne. Shantanu rejected the condition because of the promise he had made to hand over the kingdom to Bhishma. When Bhishma heard of his father’s decision, he went to Satyavati’s father and said he would renounce the throne so that the condition is fulfilled. When Satyavati’s father questioned if Bhishma’s children would stake claim to the throne, the latter then took a vow of celibacy and promised never to have children of his own.
A humbled and grateful Shantanu married his love because of his son’s sacrifice. But his courtiers were not happy and favoured Bhishma over Shantanu’s and Satyavati’s unborn children to take over the throne. This is when Bhishma took his second vow – that of complete loyalty to the one who sat on the throne of Hastinapur.
Shantanu and Satyavati had two sons – Chitrangad and Vichitravirya. After Shantanu, Chitrangad became king, but was killed in a duel. Vichitravirya took over under the able guidance of Bhishma. Such was Bhishma’s loyalty to the throne that he even abducted the three princesses of Kashi — Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika – on the orders of Vichitravirya, who wished to marry them. While Ambika and Ambalika married Vichitravirya, Amba refused because she was in love with Salva, the king of Saubala. Bhishma dutifully returned Amba to Salva, who refused to accept her as his wife, leaving Amba to live the life of a destitute. She vowed to take revenge on Bhishma even if she had to be reborn. Amba was given a boon by Lord Shiva that she would be born a great warrior in her next birth and would have a role to play in Bhishma’s death.
Bhishma, meanwhile, went on to serve the kings of Hastinapur dutifully. He served under the rule of his nephews Dhritarashtra and Pandu and watched as the battle for the kingdom began between their sons, the Kauravas and the Pandavas.
In the climax of the Mahabharata, which is the Kurukshetra war, we see the narrow view that Bhishma has about his sense of loyalty. While the Pandavas were fighting a righteous war and deserved their grand-uncle Bhishma’s support, he supported the morally corrupt Kauravas, who were forcibly ruling Hastinapur, because of his vow to serve whoever sits on the throne. During the war, Bhishma vowed not to kill the Pandavas, but he destroyed their army. He was indestructible, forcing Arjuna to finally ask Bhishma how he could be killed. Bhishma, who already felt guilty about supporting the wrong side, decided to help and hinted at the war code of conduct that stated no warrior could spar with a woman. The next day, Arjuna was joined by Shikhandi, who was the reincarnation of Amba. Upon seeing her, Bhishma laid down his weapons and Arjuna fatally injured his grand-uncle by piercing him with thousands of arrows. Bhishma fell, but his body was held above the ground by a bed of arrows that had pierced him. This would become his deathbed, and as he lay upon it, he gave Yudhishthira, the future king of Hastinapur, several lessons on statesmanship and duties as a king, before he passed away.
The character of Bhishma teaches us that while loyalty and duty are important virtues to have, they shouldn’t be practiced blindly. Bhishma chose to look away from several injustices because of his vows, which veered him on to the path of Adharma (immorality). If he had taken a more flexible view of his duties, he would have led a much less painful life than the one that he eventually did and wouldn’t have met such a violent end. Bhishma’s life, therefore, teaches us that a sense of balance in our life is essential to achieve success.