Mahabharata Characters 02 – Bhishma 01 – The fierce vow
This talk is a part of the “Fascinating Mahabharata Characters” series. To know more about this course, please visit: bhakticourses.com
Transcribed by : Sadananda Das
Today we will begin with Bhisma.
The Mahabharata itself in the Adi Parva goes elaborately into the history of the various characters starting right from Brahma down through his various descendants. It comes to the start of the Surya Vamsa; that is Vivasman or Vaivaswat Manu who comes to the earth and starts the Surya Vamsa, and then there is one of the descendants of the Vaivasat Manu who is Sudyumna, and Sudhyumna begins the Candravamsha. From the Candravamsha there are many illustrious kings; there is king Puru and there are kings like Bharat, and there are many other kings like that. Yayati is a very important king. Just as Manu populates the whole earth, Yayati populates the whole Bharat Varsha, and then his descendents go on for many generations and then finally there is a king named Prateep, and Prateep has a son named Shantanu, and this Santanu is the father of Bhisma.
The Mahabharat describes that there was an illustrious king named Mahavisha and he did a lot of righteous and dharmic rule. He performed a lot of sacrifices and ascended to heaven. While he was in heaven there was a magnificent sacrifice happening and all the illustrious people from the world had come over there and Brahmaji was also there. He was like a Brahmana in one sense among the God’s. Of course he was not the official Brahmana. They had their own priest; but he is the advisor. So, he was also there. Very honorable person; and at that time Ganga Devi also came over there. Now when Ganga Devi came there suddenly there was a gust of wind which blew and her clothes started flying away because of that.
In the heaven there are apasaras and there is enjoyment there; but the difference between the devatas and the asuras is that the devatas enjoy according the dharma whereas the asuras enjoy in defiance of dharma and in between the heavens and the lower planets there is the earthly planet. Here there is the conflict. We have the lower forces which drag us towards irreligious enjoyment and then there are some dharmic inclinations which want us to enjoy within the regulations of dharma. So, although in the heavens there is enjoyment it has to be under regulation.
Ganga Devi is a chaste and a virtuous lady and naturally when her clothes started flying away all the devatas over there turned their eyes against the wind. However, Mahavisha was so attracted by her beauty that he just kept staring and when Brahmaji saw this he said, “This sort of behavior does not behoove the residents of the heavens.” In the heavens there are apsaras and they are woman who dance and sing; and people can
behold and look at them. But apart from that there are queens and there are other ladies and they have to be dealt in a proper cultured way.
It is said that because Brahmaji told him, “It is because you have acted in a way that is inappropriate for Swarga, you will have to fall to the earth; but because you have performed a lot of sacrifices you will not fall to impiety or sin, but you will be born as a virtuous king and you will be there in the earth for one lifetime, and after that you will again ascend upwards.”
Because Mahavisha had virtues and he had pious credits he could chose whose son he would like to become and which dynasty he would like to be born. Normally most of us don’t have that choice; and that decision of where we will take birth often shapes the probable trajectory of our life in a significant way.
The samskaras that we get from our birth and our upbringing and the kind of impressions and culture that we imbibe fix our thinking and living significantly. So, he was given that choice and he thought of the various kings that were ruling in the earth, and he mentioned this king Prateek who was in the dynasty of the Kurus. And Mahavisha said, “I would like to be born as his son”, and accordingly Brahma said, “Tathasthu.” This was not actually a blessing but a curse, but it was a curse with certain allowances given within it. And then while this was all happening Ganga Devi went away from there and as she was going away she was still thinking about how this Mahavisha was so unashamedly and strongly attracted to her. As she was passing through the heavenly areas she saw that there were the Astavasus who were grieving; she asked them, “What has happened?” Now Ganga Devi flows even through the heavens and she is a venerable lady even in the heavens, and they treated her like a motherly lady and they told her, “Actually the sage Vasistha has cursed us and we have to be born in the earth and we are afraid that if we are born in the womb of any earthly woman, then that will contaminate us and we will get sinful desires by that contact and then we will be bound. That is why we are grieving. Not just because we are falling from the higher planets, but we are also falling to the lower planets where there is chance of contamination by sin.” Then Ganga Devi asked, “Why did sage Vasistha curse you? What did you do?” And they described how when they were flying by – the Vasus were among the assistant God’s. They are also important Asthavasus; the important administrators in the celestial administration, and when they were flying by they saw Vasista Muni with his Kamadhenu cow; the chief among the Asthavasus was Deu, and Deu’s wife told, “This cow is so good. If we had this cow, then we could do whatever we want. The cow will just fulfill our desires. Kamadhenu means that whatever desires we have, the cow fulfills. So, why don’t you take that cow? ”
Normally the devatas are very respectful with the sages, but in this particular case being impelled by his wife’s requests and demands, Deo went and recklessly tried to cease the Kamadhenu cow from Vasistha, and because he was the senior most among all the brothers his brothers also went with him to help him, and then Vasistha Muni saw this brazenness and insolence of the Astha Vasus and he cursed them. He said, “You do not behave in a way that is befitting the celestials. Now you have fall to the earth. In earth there are people with ungodly inclinations who do such things.” When they heard this curse – normally when they were having their weapons, they were having their pomp, they were having their heavenly opulence’s and they were intoxicated by that a little bit. But when they heard the curse, then suddenly their awareness of how powerful the brahmanas are and how dangerous their curses are; it all came back, and they fell at the feet of Vasistha begging forgiveness. Seeing their sincere repentance Vasistha said, “Once I have spoken the curse I cannot take it back, but because all of you were not primarily guilty, the remaining seven of you will be born on the earth for a very short time and after that you will come back, whereas Deo will have to stay for a full lifetime because it was he who impelled all of you to do this; because under his instruction you did all of these and because he was impelled by his wife; because he was so controlled by woman, when he goes to earth he will not have the pleasure of the association of woman. In fact he will have to live celibate throughout his life. And now all of you go to the earth and be born in the earth. This is how the Vasus told the story to Ganga Devi and they begged her, “We don’t want to be born in any earthly womb. Please you descend to the earth and you become our mother, and in this way protect us from contamination.” Ganga Devi started thinking about their request, and then she asked them, “Who would you like to have as your father?” They said, “Actually there is a king Mahavisha who is going to be born as Santanu to King Pratik.” Now Ganga Devi had already seen how Mahavisha was attracted to her, and in this particular case Ganga Devi continued to be the same, because Ganga is an entity; there is the river and there is the person who is the personified form of Ganga. Ganga is the same whether she is in the heaven or she is on the earth, but when Mahavisha was born as Shantanu he did not remember all these.
When something happens in the heavens there are certain people like Narada Muni who goes to the heaven and then he comes to the earth, but he is in the same body. Whereas there are people like Ganga Devi and there are other people like Mahavisha who they take a new body when they are born, and they don’t clearly remember what happened in their past. So, Santanu was born and he grew up and he became a great warrior and an illustrious noble king. As one day he was going by the Ganga river suddenly he saw a celestially beautiful lady over there and his heart was captivated by her; and she also returned his glances. Then Santanu approached her and he asked
her, “Who are you?” and she did not actually tell who exactly she was. But Santanu was so captivated by her that just by seeing her he could understand that she is also a nobility and that she is not any ordinary woman. And then he asked her, “Will you become my queen?” She said, “Yes, but in one condition. You will not interfere with or question whatever I do.” At this particular time Santanu Maharaja was so captivated by her beauty and he was so eager to have her as his wife that he did not think about anything and he thought, “Ok, even if a woman is there what she will ask for, what will she want. Maybe she will want a lot of opulence or jewelry or lot of clothes, like that.” So, he said, “Yes, whatever you do I will not interfere, I will not question. Whatever you like you can do.” And then he went with him and then they married. Then they had a son, and soon after the birth of the son – Now this son was actually one of the Vasus; Ganga Devi took that son and she went to the Ganga river and she threw the child into the river, and when Santanu saw this he was horrified. His own child being thrown into the river by her mother – his heart was ravaged, but still he didn’t know what to do. If he spoke he would lose his wife, if he didn’t speak he would lose his child. He just couldn’t decide what to do. After the first son the second son was also thrown into the Ganga river. This happened for seven sons. When it happened with the eight son Santanu just couldn’t tolerate it, and as Ganga was about to throw the child into the river, he said, “O woman what are you doing? How can you be so hard hearted as to throw your own son into a river like this?” That time Ganga Devi looked at him and smiled, and she revealed her identity. Then she told him the whole story that these were the asta vasus, and how she had saved them from prolonged life on the earth by casting them into the river and sending them back to the heavens. And he said, “Your opposition was also ordained because this last Vasu was ordained to live for a full life. Then she said, “But you have violated my condition. So, I will depart now.” After hearing this story Santanu became repentant and thought, “Why did I oppose?” But he said, “If you are from the heavens…”
Here also when we see Maharaja Santanu we may see at one level, “Oh how he was so infatuated by a woman that he just was ready to do anything for her.” But he was a king and as king he was thinking like a king, and what did he think; “Now I have got a son.” Now he could have said, “If my wife is going, let at least my son be with me.” But he thought, “No, if Ganga goes to the heavens, then in the heavens there are many great sages and warriors.” So, he told Ganga Devi, “You take this boy” They had named him Devavrata. Santanu said “You take him with you and let him reside in the heaven and let him learn from the heavenly residents, sages and the warriors over there the skills and knowledge that is required for a king.” So, Maharaja Santanu was not just a besotted man although he was attracted.
Among the ksatriyas there maybe attraction of a king to a queen or prince to a princess,
but that is also never at the rejection of dharma. They still know their responsibilities and they abide by their responsibilities. So, Maharaja Santanu agreed. He himself said and then Ganga Devi agreed; and then the mother and the son went to the heavens.
Several years later one day Maharaj Santanu was just passing by the Ganga river and suddenly he saw that the flow of the Ganga river had stopped. This was an unprecedented event. The Ganga is so forceful that whatever comes within its flow far from stopping it, it just blows it away or somehow it keep flowing above it, below it and around it or through it. Even Kunti Devi prays that just as the Ganga’s flow moves towards the ocean, similarly let my consciousness flow towards you. This example is given because Ganga is so forceful and her flow is so unstoppable that the stopping of Ganga’s flow is almost unheard of. Santanu amazed by this incident went upstream to see what had happened and saw at one particular place there was a handsome and magnificent bodied celestial looking youth with a bow and arrow. He looked near that prince and he saw that just by shooting arrows with his bow he had created a damn, and the damn had completely stopped the flow of the Ganga and as Santanu beheld this handsome youth he felt a spontaneous attraction for this youth rising in his heart and he started thinking, “If he had been my son he would have been of my age. Could he be my son?” And as he was thinking like this suddenly right in front of his eyes the sun disappeared and he was frantic with anxiety and mystified, looking around restlessly agitated, and suddenly Ganga Devi appeared over there and behind her was the same youth and Ganga Devi was smiling and the youth was folding his hand in front of him. Ganga Devi told him, “This is your son Devavrata.” As per your request I took him to heavens and he has learned from Brihaspati, Sukracharya, Markendeya and from Parsurama. He has learned from the best of teachers.”
Markendeya is a timeless sage and he knows oceanic wisdom. Brihaspati is the guru and the priest of the Devatas, Sukracharya is the priest of the asuras. So, from all these persons Bhisma has learned; especially Parsuram.
Parsuram was a person who had demolished and destroyed the ksatriya’s twenty one times and he was matchless and he did not teach any ksatriyas, but because of the exceptional nature of Bhisma, how he was celestial and born on earth, and because Ganga Devi had requested, he had agreed to teach Bhisma and Bhisma had become excelled as his foremost student. In this way he said that in every way he is competent to become a glorious prince and eventually a king in your dynasty. Maharaja Santanu’s heart swelled in joy and pride to hear this. He drew Devavrata to his embrace and he felt as if his life was successful. He took Devavrata back and Ganga departed and he immediately had him installed as Prince Regent; that after him Devavrata will become the successor and Devavrata proved worthy of the responsibility of the Prince and the
King in every way. He was virtuous, he was sensitive, he was respectful to the elders, he was caring like a father to the citizens although he was young. And everybody: the courtiers, the citizens and all started adoring Devavrata.
One day again Maharaja Santanu had gone to the forest and while he was in the forest – now it is significant that after Ganga had departed Maharaj Santanu did not marry again because he was so captivated by Ganga. Once when he was just going to the forest he suddenly found himself captivated by an extraordinary fragrance and he just drew irresistibly in the direction of the fragrance, and when he finally reached there he found that that fragrance came from a matsya princess. There are many meanings of the word matsya but one meaning is – matsya is connected with fish. So, the fisher people are also called the matsya’s; and she was a fisher woman and her name was Satyavati. She had a blessing from Vyasa deva and Parasara Muni because of which her body was extraordinarily fragrant. Santanu went to her and when he saw her, he saw that she was in a particular community. Now earlier when he had met Ganga he saw that Ganga was all alone and there was no one. That is why he approached Ganga directly. But when he went to Satyavati and saw that Satyavati belonged to the fisherman community then he went to her father who was head of the community. She was the princess in that community and her father was the head, the King. And he told him, “I would like to marry Satyavati.” Now for the matsyas this was a great honor that a girl from the fisherman community was going to marry the king of the Kuru dynasty, but he matsya king was a little calculative. He said, “It was always my hope and my dream that my daughter’s son will eventually become the king in whichever family she marries. This is because I am a king and my daughter is a princess. So, her son should eventually become the king. If you are going to marry her, then her son should become the king.” When Maharaj Santanu heard this his face and his heart both fell. He had already promised. He had already officially announced that Devavrata would be the king after him. So, how could he go back on his word, and how could he deprive Devavrata for the sake of his own desires? His head drooping and he left from there dejected.
Devavrata was such a diligent son and a king that he observed that his father was looking dejected, and seeing that his father was not ready to tell the cause he enquired from the ministers, and the ministers told him that his father was in a cheerful mood, but after he went to the matsya area and met with the matsya ruler or head over there he is seen gloomy. So, he went and talked the matsya and he came to know the whole story what had happened, and he demanded that her son should become the king. Then Devrata said, “If that is your desire, then immediately I will not become the king. I will forsake the regency and I will ensure that her son will become the king.” Then Satyavati’s father said, “You may make a promise like this, but what about your descendants? You are the older son. Your son will claim to be the king or will become
the king after you.” On hearing this Devavrata said, “I take a vow before you that I will never marry and in this way I will always act as the protector of the ruling king and whatever kings come after that. I will always act as their protector and as their servant of the rulers in Hastinapur.” When Devavrata spoke this at that time flowers fell from the sky, and from the sky was heard the word, Bhisma, Bhisma, Bhisma. Bhisma means very heavy and very grave, difficult and very glorious. This word has multiple connotations of meanings and all these are implied.
Why was it so glorious? Actually being a renunciate or being a celibate is not unusual in the Vedic culture. There are many sages who would live as renunciates and who would renounce the world. Some of the sages were also householders and some of them were renuciates.
In the Vedic culture we will see that there two broad categories of people: there are the ksatriyas and there are the renounced sages; both are glorious in their own ways, and both exemplify the path of dharma in two different ways. The sages exemplify the path of dharma through renunciation and the kings exemplify the path of dharma through engagement in the world, engagement to establish dharma and to live according to dharma in their own lives. Both are virtuous. When one is engaged in the world one enjoys in the world but within the precincts of dharma and as a service to the community and as a service to the society and a service to the humanity at large. Those who are renounced they renounce the world and they focus on transcendence; they set an example of transcendence and that’s how they serve others also. So, the underlying ethos is the ethos of service.
In the Vedic culture there are these two paths: the gradual path or spiritual path which is called the pravriti marg; that is a rapid path for spiritual progress, and there is the nivritti marg – the path of engagement and the path of renunciation. Both lead to the transcendence. Now of course the best of the Nivritti marg is the bhakti marg, but essentially there are both these paths. But Bhisma’s glory is that he stayed as a ksatriya, he lived in palaces, he lived amidst royal opulence; and royal opulence means not just gold and jewels, but there were his brothers, nephews and the descendents. They all had their queens and princesses and he lived amidst them, but he did not get tempted. He did not deviate from his principles. To live as a renunciate in the renounced order is glorious and to live as a righteous householder or a ksatriya according to dharma is also in its own way glorious. But what Bhisma did was, to live as a ksatriya but to live like a rununciate. This was extraordinary and very difficult. To live amidst temptation and to never fall prey to temptation is extremely difficult, and that is why even the devatas were amazed. Many great sages had taken the vow of celibacy, but the devatas did not tell, “Bhisma, Bhisma.” They said it for Devavrata because he had
taken this vow to live in such an extraordinary way. And his vow he took not just for spiritual advancement; there are people who may renounce the world for spiritual advancement. He took his vow just for the sake of service to his father. And that too he could have said, “My father didn’t take care for me. It was my mother who took care of me. What has my father done for me?” But he was a duty bound person and he said, “What be my father’s desire I will fulfill. Now when Maharaja Santanu heard this his heart was torn between conflicting emotions: joy not just that now he would have Satyavati, joy also that how glorious a son he had who was ready to sacrifice everything. At the same time he had the grief that his son would be bereaved beacause he would not marry and have the pleasures of life. And then being very pleased with him he gave him a blessing.
Maharaj Santanu was also virtuous. He had potency. So, he gave Devavrata the blessing of Iccha mrtyu. He said, “You can live for as long as you want and whenever you desire you will die. Till then you will be able to live.” Now we will wonder how did Maharaja Santanu got attracted like this first to Ganga and then again to Satyavati? The point here is that Mahabharat specially talks not about necessarily transcendentalists. The male female attraction is always there in this world and it cannot be rejected entirely; it has to be regulated according to the principles of dharma. All these at the highest level are the arrangement of the Lord by which various characters would play different distinctive roles and in the enfoldment of his pastimes they would assume those particular roles. That is at the highest level, and at the intermediate level of material religiosity they were acting according to Ksatriya principles. Ksatriyas are expected to have queens, and for Maharaj Santanu to want to have another queen was not wrong. It is not he who had asked Bhisma to do this, and Bhisma had already taken that vow. Once he had taken that vow and the devatas had sanctified it by showering flowers and uttering the word Bhisma, he could not go against it. So, he accepted the sacrifice of his son and blessed him profusely.
Such is the illustrious character of Bhisma that he is so learned, virtuous and so self-sacrificing, and it was he who would played the role of the parent for the Pandava’s and to some extent even for the Kauravas. Especially for the Pandavas because Pandu departed when the Pandavas were quite young. And how he played the role and how he while acting as a protector of the Kuru king had to eventually take part in a fratricidal war due to fatal complications, that we will discuss in our future class.