Shantanu, the king of Hastinapur married
Ganga, the river goddess, and had a child named Devavrata. Ganga left for her heavenly abode once the child was born. Devavrata spent his early years with his mother, being taught by the gods and the greatest of the rishis, and returned to his father as a young boy. Shantanu was so happy to see his son back that he anointed him as the crown prince.
Shantanu had lived an austere life since the departure of
Ganga. However, one day, as he walked along the banks of the river Yamuna, he smelt a wonderful fragrance, and curious, he traced the fragrance to a young fisherwoman. He was surprised that such a divine fragrance could emanate from a common fisherwoman, and asked her who she was.
“I am Satyavati, the daughter of the chief of fishermen” she said, and added that the fragrance emanating from her was the gift of a sage she had pleased. Shantanu was so enamored by her that he asked her to marry him, but she said it was up to her father to decide whom she was to marry.
Shantanu sought out the chief of the fishermen, and humbly requested her hand in marriage. Satyavati’s father replied, “O King, we are flattered and honored by your request. We know you are a great king, and we respect you. It would indeed be an honour for my daughter to become your queen. However, as a king of my clan, I have a condition to put forward. The son born to you from my daughter should be king after you. If you agree to this, the marriage can take place at once!”
Shantanu was stunned! He had already anointed Devavrata as his heir-apparent. Moreover, as his first born, and an able one at that, Devavrata certainly had every right to the throne. How could he now promise the fisherman that his grandson alone would be king? It would be unfair, and Shantanu was above all, known as a fair and just king. He could not allow that to happen.
Shantanu returned to the palace sadly, knowing that he had lost his heart to Satyavati, but could never marry her. However much he tried to conceal his sadness, Devavrata soon was aware that something was troubling his father. When a straight question failed to elicit a clear answer, Devavrata questioned the charioteer about the places his father had recently visited, and soon arrived at the fisherman’s doorstep.
Learning that his father had been enamored of Satyavati, he asked for her hand on behalf of his father. Satyavati’s father replied, “O Prince, your father did come here and ask for my daughter’s hand, but he could not meet the condition I set for him. As a king, I can understand his predicament, but as a father, it is my duty to ensure a bright future for my daughter and her children. My condition still stands. If your father agrees to it, I will consent to the marriage.”
Devavrata asked, “Sir, please let me know the condition you have set for your daughter’s marriage. I will fulfill it on behalf of my father.” The chief explained, “Prince, if my daughter is to be the queen, I desire that it should be her children who should rule Hastinapur after the demise of your father. The king has already named you as his successor, and hence is loath to agree to this condition of mine.”
At once, Devavrata replied, “If that is all, I pledge that it shall be the son born to your daughter who shall be the king. I renounce my right as heir-apparent!”
However, the fisherman was still not satisfied, “Prince, you are a man of your word, and I believe you when you say that you will lay no claim to the throne, but what of your descendants? They will surely be as heroic as you are, and will be serious contenders to the throne. How can you assure my daughter’s children their rights?”
Devavrata was bent on fulfilling his father’s desire, and scarcely waited a moment before raising his right hand to the heavens and declaring, “I vow that I shall never marry and beget children. I shall remain chaste all my life, and dedicate my life to the throne of Hastinapur!”
As he uttered these words, flowers rained from the heavens, and the skies resounded with cries of “Bhishma! Bhishma!” ‘Bhishma’ means the one who undertakes a terrible vow, and fulfills it. From then on, Devavrata came to be known by the epithet, ‘Bhishma’.
Satyavati’s father was silenced by the terrible vow of the young prince, and he allowed him to lead his daughter to marry the king. When Shantanu heard of the great oath taken by his son, he was overwhelmed with love and blessed him. He conferred upon him the gift of ‘iccha mrityu’, the ability to choose his time of death.
Bhishma stood by his oath till the end of his life, ably justifying his name. He remained true to Hastinapur, guiding the sons and grandsons of Satyavati in their duties. He was always aware of the righteousness of the Pandavas, and encouraged them on their adherence to truth. Well aware of the wrongdoings of the Kauravas, he continually advised Dhritarashtra to be stern with his sons, especially Duryodhana. Even when he realized that his advice fell on deaf ears, he nevertheless continued to advise the king, knowing that it was his duty towards the throne of Hastinapur. He was among the few people who realized the divinity of
Krishna and the role he was fated to play in the war amongst his family members. Surrendering to the divine, Bhishma decided to stand by his oath towards the kingdom, and sided with the Kauravas in the Mahabharata war, even though he knew the outcome of the war. His chivalry did not leave his side even in his last moments, when he refused to fight Sikhandi, aware that he was really a woman, born to destroy him. Lying on a bed of arrows, life ebbing out, he refused to leave the body and chose to cling on to life till the war was over and Yudhishtra was crowned the king, so that he could instruct the righteous king in his duties. It was only after he finished his discourse to Yudhishtra that he welcomed death with open arms, having completed all the vows he had taken upon himself. Such was the greatness of Bhishma, the great grandsire of the Kauravas and the Pandavas, the one who took a terrible oath, and lived his life to fulfill it!
The story of Bheeshma illustrates the importance of not compromising on our principles. Out of respect for his father, Bheeshma took an oath that he would always act in the best interest of Hasthinapur. He stayed true to his oath and lived his life to fulfill it. He had to make many sacrifices and uncomfortable choices along the way, but he never wavered