Right, now for a spot of mythological revisionism.
STATUTORY WARNING: If you're one of those people who get all devout and uptight about the Mahabharat and feel that all mythological icons should be respected and worshipped and stuff - DO NOT read this post. Or, rather, read it (it might clear your sinuses) but don't say I didn't warn you.
It has long been a theory of mine, that Bhishma (or Bhishm, I'd rather not put in these irritating a's at the end) was gay .
Here's the official version of the Bhishm story (or at least the version as gleaned from Irawati Karve's Yuganta, the TV version of Mahabharat and Amar Chitra Katha) . He's a prince of Hastinapur who discovers that his father has the hots for some fisherwoman, except said fisherwoman won't sleep with him unless he can guarantee that her offspring, and not Bhishm, will become king. Bhishm, hearing of this, not only renounces the throne, but, to put the matter to rest forever, takes a vow of life-long celibacy. So committed is he to this vow that even when the welfare of the Kaurav empire requires that a heir be produced, and Bhishm emerges as the logical sperm donor for this enterprise, he refuses to father a child and safeguard the empire, thereby setting of a chain of events that leads inexorably to the split between the Kauravs and the Pandavs and the great war that was fought between them. In this war, Bhishm is originally the leader of the Kaurav forces, and proves an almost insurmountable opponent to the Pandavs, until they use the fact that Bhishm will not fight Shikhandi to defeat him. Bhishm will not fight Shikhandi, we are told, because Shikhandi used to be a woman and Bhishm does not fight women. How chivalrous! How noble!
If you think about it for a minute, this story doesn't really hold water. First, the bit about Bhishm being this chivalrous old world type is a little hard to buy. I mean, remember, the whole point about the Amba thing was that he went around abducting these women so they could marry what's his name and keep the dynasty going. And then he wouldn't do the square thing by Amba. Hardly what you would call a chivalrous act. If he was willing to drive Amba to suicide when she was a woman, why not be prepared to kill her when she'd been reborn as a man? More importantly, this is the same Bhishm who did nothing, if memory serves, when the whole Draupadi striptease thing was going down. Surely allowing a defenseless young woman to be stripped naked by a hundred horny men is a lot less chivalrous than killing one former woman who's attacking you in battle. At this point, Bhishm apologists will argue that the Shikhandi thing was just an excuse, that Bhishm just chose to die. Or that it was his way of atoning for the one wrong he ever committed. But that just feels too easy.
As for the Bhishm's great vow - even that, when you think about it, seems problematic. Are we really to believe that a young man (a prince no less) would not just give up his rightful throne, he would give up on sex for the rest of his life just so his father could sleep with some woman? And in doing so, give his consent to a request that went against every established precedent of primogeniture? Was such an extreme vow even necessary, you might ask? Could he have bargained for, and got away with less? And why go on with the vow when it clearly made no sense for the empire? When Satyavati actually pleaded with him to renounce it? The traditional version of the story will argue that this was a great and noble thing to do, but it's always struck me as being unbelievably obtuse. It's not just that it was bad policy for the state, it's also that, in refusing to break his vow, Bhishm actually overturned the code of patrilineal succession - neither the Pandavs nor the Kauravs were related by any ties of blood to the original line of the kings of Hastinapur (though they were, of course, related to Satyavati, so that succession, amazingly, had become matrilineal - so much for patriarchy!). Think about the codes that the Kshatriyas lived by and ask yourself if that isn't extreme. Think about the fact that is a man who wouldn't fight a woman after she'd 'turned into a man' but was okay with letting the succession of his kingdom pass out of his father's bloodline.
You could argue that it was a question of personal honour - even though a fairly idiotic type of honour. But notice that to overcome the problems this vow of his caused, Bhishm had to essentially set up a whole bunch of fairly dishonourable acts. There's the whole Amba story, for one. Plus you now have a set-up where someone who's virtually an outsider has to be brought in to impregnate the queens of Hastinapur. So that the kings of Hastinapur are now effectively children born out of wedlock and fathered by a man who was also born out of wedlock. So much for family honour!
Here's what I think is really going on.
Let's start with Bhishm's birth. The first thing we're told about him is that his mother tried to kill him when he was a baby. If that won't guarantee that you're going to grow up having issues with women I don't know what will. The next thing we know, he's back as the prince and heir to the throne of Hastinapur, and pretty much the first thing he does is go and vow to have no children. And remember this is in an age when there's no birth control, so no children pretty much means no sex. How unbelievably hard would that be for a young man to promise (and for what?) - unless he was homosexual, in which case it would be a really convenient way of getting permanently out of all this fathering princes for the kingdom nonsense. It's not even like his father seriously proposed this to him - he went out and found the fisherman in question and pretty much browbeat him into accepting this vow. What an unbelievable masterstroke for him. How he must have laughed his head off - not only does he get out of doing something he doesn't want to do, he becomes a hero for it!
The rest follows easily enough. Every time the situation demands that Bhishm breaks his vow, he falls back on this notion of honour, simply because it's easier to use the vow as an excuse than to make the point that he simply doesn't want to. As for Shikhandi - that's the most obvious bit, isn't it? All this woman turning into man stuff is so much gobbledy-gook. Shikhandi's simply a former lover of Bhishm's, one who, for whatever reasons, has gone over to the Pandav's side and who Bhishm will not attack because he still thinks of him as a 'woman' that is to say, as a beloved.
Obviously, there's no way I can prove this is true (anymore than anyone can prove it was false - if anything, we KNOW that Bhishm never slept with a woman). Nor am I a major Mahabharat scholar. I just think it fits the facts of the case so much better than the traditional explanation that it's at least worth thinking about. For all you know, that might even have been the original version of the story, and it's only centuries of intolerance and silly prudishness that have distorted it to produce the tale we now know.
 If you haven't already figured this out from reading my blog, I'm a strong supporter of gay rights and of 'non-traditional' sexual preferences in general. So when I say I think Bhishm was gay, I absolutely DO NOT mean that as being denigrating - if anything it would raise my respect for him considerably. Then he wouldn't be some clueless old fraud, he would be pretty much the smartest person in that whole story.
 Obviously there's a lot more to the Bhishm story, but this is the important stuff.
 N.B. If you want an even more fun hypothesis you can go the Terry Pratchett route and argue that Bhishm was really a woman. But that's a whole other post.
 Oh, and what about all that stuff about him lying on a bed of arrows? Talk about phallic symbolism.