How Bhishma’s grand oath to stay celibate resulted in his own death

The Xennial
·4-min read
Depiction of Arjuna-Bhishma war from Mahabharata, at the base of temple, Hoysaleshwara temple, Halebidu, Karnataka, india.
Depiction of Arjuna-Bhishma war from Mahabharata, at the base of temple, Hoysaleshwara temple, Halebidu, Karnataka, india.

You know, by now, the story of Bhishma and his unbreakable vow. By pledging to stay celibate and never marry, young prince Devavrata became Bhishma, or the fierce one. Bhishma’s intention of taking a lifelong vow of celibacy was to bring joy to his father’s life.

His father, the king Shantanu had already lost his first wife and Bhishma’s mother, Ganga due to a curse. However, he gets a second chance at happiness when he meets Satyavati, a fisherwoman who agrees to marry him only on the condition that her son would inherit the Hastinapur throne. By now, Bhishma (who was still Devavrata at the time) was already named crown prince and was supposed to succeed his father. On learning about Satyavati’s condition, Devavrata promises her that not only will he step aside to make way for her yet-to-be-born son, he’d also never marry so no one could ever stake claim to the throne in the future.

In doing so, Bhishma unwittingly sets into motion a series of events that would eventually lead to the bloody war at Kurukshetra and also his own death.

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Years have passed since Devavrata has taken the oath and become Bhishma. His stepbrother, Chitrangada, the older son of Satyavati and Shantanu has died in a battle against a gandharva and the young Vichitravirya is placed upon the throne with Bhishma by his side. The regent continues to groom the young king to take over the duties of the state and decides one day that it’s time that he get married.

By now, Bhishma’s fame has spread far and wide and he is feared among his peers. So when the king of Kashi hosts a swayamvara for his three princesses – Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika, Bhishma doesn’t think it inappropriate to go there uninvited and kidnap the three would-be brides.

A fierce battle ensues with the eligible princes in pursuit of Bhishma’s chariot. Among them is Shalva, Ambika’s lover and who the princess was supposed to pick when her turn came. However the plans go out of the window when Bhishma shows up and packs her off with her other two sisters. Shalva tries to fight Bhishma but is overpowered without a lot of effort.


The three sisters are now in Hastinapur, prisoners of the mighty Bhishma. Amba reveals that she was indeed planning on marrying Shalva and so Bhishma sends her to the king. However, Shalva is licking his wounds and rejects Amba since he was defeated in battlefield by Bhishma.

Heartbroken, Amba returns to Hastinapur and requests that she too be married off to Vichitravirya. However, the young Kuru king rejects her too saying that she belonged to someone else. A horrified Amba then begs Bhishma to marry her but he reminds her of the vow he had taken.

Amba is furious and promises to seek revenge. She travels the length and breadth of the country and seeks help from various kings and princes in the hope that they would wage a war against Hastinapur. Unfortunately, all of them turn her down out of fear of incurring Bhishma’s wrath.

After several failed attempts, Amba seeks divine intervention and Shiva promises her that she will get to kill Bhishma in her next birth.

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As per the boon, Amba is born as Shikhandini whose gender is unknown but eventually becomes male and comes to be known as Shikhandi. In some versions of the story, Shikhandi is gender fluid. In any case, Shikhandi is able to participate in the Kurukshetra war, in accordance to the rules of the battlefield, where women were not allowed.

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On the day Arjuna takes on Bhishma face-to-face, Shikhandi offers too be his shield. Because of Shikhandi’s presence, Bhishma is unable to fire at Arjuna. You see, as a Kshatriya, Bhishma had taken a vow to never raise a weapon against a woman or anyone who was not born a man. Shikhandi fit the bill. As a result, Bhishma lays down his weapons and before long meets his end.


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