Bhishma was the eighth son born of the goddess Ganga. After his birth the goddess prepared to drown him, as she had his seven brothers. King Santanu saw this and pleaded that she stop. It was then she revealed her godhood to Santanu.
The eight, she explained, were immortals condemned to be born in the world of men. She drowned the first seven sons in the river which bears her name. They had begged her for brief lives. But the eighth son was fated to endure a long life among mortals.
Holding her son in her arms, Ganga left Santanu. He’d been happy as Ganga’s husband, but now Santana renounced all sensual pleasures. One day he walked along the bank of the Ganges and saw a child firing arrows across its waters. Ganga appeared to him in human guise and told him that this was his son. Santanu joyfully pronounced him his heir.
As Santanu was walking along the banks of the Yamuna four years later, he inhaled a divine perfume. Following the breeze, he came to the source of the heavenly scent. There he stood before a woman of unsurpassed beauty. For many years, he’d suppressed his senses, but now he could do so no longer. Before he took his next breath, he asked her to be his wife. “Please ask my father, chief of fishermen, for his consent,” she replied. The chief set forth but one condition. The son of Devarata, his daughter, must become the next king. But Santanu could not agree because he’d already appointed his son to be his heir. He returned to his palace a troubled man, yet he told no one of his sorrow.
Bhishma was not the name originally bestowed upon the son of Ganga and Santanu. The title means one who undertakes and fulfills a difficult vow. As Bhishma took his vow, the gods cried out “Bhishma.”
Santanu spent his days in sorrow. And one day his son asked him its cause. He told his son that he worried lest his son fall in war and the family be no more. But Bhishma thought that there was more to his father’s sorrow. When Bhishma questioned the royal charioteer he learned of Devarata and her father. He approached the fisherman chief and offered to renounce the thrown. But the chief wasn’t satisfied. He then promised to never marry and to live a chaste life. The gods looked on and cried, “Bhishma.”
In later years, Bhishma defeated contending princes in order to win brides for his brother. The princess, Amba, however, revealed that she had married Salva in her thoughts. Since she had already given away her heart, she was sent back to Salva. Salva, however refused to marry her since he was ashamed to marry one belonging to a man who had defeated him. He told her to marry Bhishma, but Bhishma refused in order to keep his vow of chastity. Amba vowed revenge against Bhishma and jumped into a burning pyre in order to be reborn a warrior. When Bhishma was slain on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, it may have been by the arrow of the reborn Amba. Before he died, Bhishma claimed that it was Arjuna’s arrow which slew him.