September 18, 2020

Bhishma – the truth behind “ichha mrityu”:

By Nilakhi Banerjee

Indian mythology often brings us stories. That are not only educative, but are also relevant through time, in each and every era. Such is the tale of Bhishma Pitamah, the Grand Old Man of the epic Mahabharata. His life is a veritable example of selfless service, loyalty and paropakara (sacrificing his own life for others’ benefit).

One of the most central characters of Jaya (Mahabharata). His legend tells us about his immense wisdom and teaches us how. We should follow the path of the Dharma in our own lives. Irrespective of all the wrong and injustice we may have to face during our personal journey.

King Shantanu blessed his son Bhishma with Ichcha Mrityu. He could choose the time of his death, making him immortal till his chosen time of death.

But , king Shantanu was not a God or an Avatar of God, for the boon to actualize.

Bhishma lived a long life of righteous actions and purity in every aspect.

The question is- Did the boon actually come true because of the karma of Bhishma? What do the scriptures have to say with regard to this? To know this we must look into who Bhishma was?

Who Was Bhishma?

In the Mahabharata, Bhishma was the eighth son of the Kuru King Shantanu and Mother Goddess Ganga. Well known for his BhishmaPratigya or pledge of lifelong celibacy, he was one of the very few characters in Indian mythology to be blessed with icchamrityu or the ability to decide his time of death at will. An unparalleled archer and warrior of his time, his strength was considered to be equal to that of 4 maharathi warriors.

So devoted was he to Lord Vishnu, that he handed down the Vishnu Sahasranama (1000 names of Vishnu) to Yudhishthira even when he was spending his last days on his Sharashaiya (bed of arrows), during the Great Battle of Kurukshetra.


Bhishma was trying to find a bride for his half-brother, king Vichitravirya. He abducted princess Amba, Ambika and Ambalika of Kashi, from their swayamvara ceremony (a ceremony where princesses are allowed to choose their own spouse from the assemblage of potential suitors present there). Amba, the oldest of the princesses, was already in love with Salwa, the ruler of Saubala. The young king tried his best to stop the abduction, but was no match for the powerful Bhishma.

Upon reaching Hastinapura, Amba confided in Bhishma that she and Salwa were deeply in love with each other and they planned to wed each other very soon. Taking pity on her, he sent her back to Salwa, who, bitter from his humiliation at the hands of Bhishma, refused to accept Amba back into his life.

Amba then approached Bhishma and begged him to marry her. He refused, citing the reason that he had taken a vow of lifelong celibacy. Enraged at being disgraced thus, Amba vowed to avenge this insult, even if it meant having to be reborn again and again.

Amba Is Reborn As Shikhandi

After the battle, Parashurama narrated the events to Amba, also asking her to let go of her anger and seek Bhishma’s blessings. She, however, refused to pay heed to his advice and stubbornly declared that she would achieve her objective of avenging herself.

She then undertook severe penance to appease Lord Shiva. Pleased, the Lord appeared before her and told her that, in her subsequent birth, she would be born as a man named Shikhandi. Shiva additionally assured her that she would recall her past and would eventually be instrumental in causing Bhishma’s death, thus fulfilling her vow.

Later, during the battle of Kurukshetra, Krishna told Arjuna to involve Shikhandi and ask her to stand in front of Arjuna. Bhishma would then be forced to lay down his weapons in front of her. The Pandavas were initially reluctant to heed this advice, as it would amount to cheating. However, they realized that this was the only way they could win the war.

Accordingly, on the next day, which was the tenth day of the Kurukshetra War, Shikhandi accompanied Arjuna on his chariot and challenged Bhishma. True to his word, the latter put down his weapons and was felled by innumerable arrows hurled at him by Arjuna.


The arrows pierced Bhishma’s entire body, forming a bed (Sharashaiya) as he fell. In this way, Shiva’s promise to Amba, that she would be the cause of Bhishma’s destruction and death, was fulfilled. Amba got her revenge in this birth as Shikhandi.

Finally, the great warrior decided that he no longer wanted to fight. Focusing all his energies on channeling his thoughts toward the Divine Being, he decided that he now wanted to leave this mortal world. He lay there for about 58 nights, waiting for the most auspicious moment to shed his mortal coil.

Why Did Bhishma Wait So Long To Attain Samadhi?

There are two upper worlds knows as “pitruyana” and “deva yana”. After leaving the mortal body, the jeevatma (individual soul) goes to either of their worlds. Of these two, the deva yana leads to the world of Brahman, from where the soul has no rebirth and hence, does not return to earth. The pitruyana, on the other hand, leads to the Chandra Loka, from where the soul has to enter yet another body and return to earth as a rebirth.


During the Uttarayana (or the winter solstice), the sun ascends the northern path in the sky. This opens the path of deva yana. On the first day of Uttarayana, Bhishma gave up his mortal body, while still on his sharashaiya.

So blessed was he that he instantly attained moksha or salvation. He was granted entry into the MaatruLoka, which is believed to be even higher than Vaikuntha, the residence of Lord Vishnu himself.

Why The Arrows Were Not Removed From His Body

One question that often comes to mind is, “why were the arrows piercing Bhishma’s body not removed? Why did he accept to suffer this painful fate?”. There is a reason for this.

According to the Mahabharata, Bhoomi Devi (Mother Earth) did not accept him back, as he had lived too long a life. The normal lifespan of a person in that era would have been two generations. However, the grandsire had lived on for over four generations.

As if it was not bad enough that Bhoomi Devi would not accept him; the Akasha (sky) refused to take him in as well. Bhishma had chosen to remain single lifelong. He had not married and had not fathered children. Due to this, he had not repaid his debt to his ancestors. Hence, Akasha too did not want him.

Bhishma told Arjuna about his plight and begged him for mercy, asking him to do something, which would see that he neither belonged to the earth, nor to the sky. That is why Arjuna was forced to shoot arrows at his Pitamaha in such a way that he would be suspended between the ground and the sky.

Bhishma And Euthanasia

We often wish for a good death; as regards both our time of death and the way we pass on from this world. Being mentally, physically and financially independent at the time of death is very important to us. Going quickly would also save family and loved ones from the constant mental trauma or seeing their people suffer and reach a painfully slow death.

People would also like to complete certain tasks before leaving this mortal world. The elders in the family, for example, would like to see their young ones settling in life or begetting children/grand children before they permanently close their eyes. Then, according to Hindu belief, dying during certain auspicious days or in certain months when the sun is transiting from south to north is considered to be auspicious. This type of death also acts as a sort of solace to the survivors in the family.

In the case of Bhishma, he had the boon of icchamrityu. He could live as long as he pleased and die only when he truly wished for it. Of course, this is similar to the modern-day concept of euthanasia, which is at present a hot subject of debate in the whole world.

What Is Euthanasia

Types of Euthanasia

Euthanasia, which implies ending life intentionally, can be voluntary, non-voluntary, active and passive.

  • When it happens with the patient’s consent, it is voluntary
  • When he or she is not fit to give consent, it is non-voluntary. Involuntary euthanasia is that which is done against the patient’s will
  • Active euthanasia is when fatal substances are used to induce death
  • Passive euthanasia involves the withdrawal of treatment or life support, which are essential for the patient’s survival

Advanced Humans:

This brings us to a probable question. Were the ancient civilizations more advanced? Well the answer lies in our epics. As science is progressing the mortality rate is slowly decreasing. Humans live much longer. The advancing medical science is innovating new medicines thus increasing the life span of humans. This brings us the concept of Kal Chakra or time wheel which rotates. So it’s quite understandable that whatever is happening now has already happened in the past and will again happen in future. It is probable that the ancient civilizations had such technologies which made the concepts of “iccha mrityu” or alike technologies quite normal. We are aware that the outer space beings commonly called aliens are much advanced than us and have many such mystical powers.

These aliens are nothing but advanced humans who once went up in space to stay. Much like today when space colonies are set up and humans are travelling to space settling there. According to geography, the earth will cease to be an ideal dwelling place for the humans. So then the advanced humans will go up in space and might return ages after. Similar concept exists with the ancient civilizations who had the access to scientific advancements.

Whatever maybe the case, we must appreciate the excellent scientific progress during the primal ages. Keep following us. We will be back soon.