Mahabharata Characters 03 – Bhishma 02 – The fatal complication
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
Welcome back to the fascinating Mahabharat series. Today we will continue with the discussion of Bhisma.
In the last discussion we stopped at the point where Bhisma had taken his fearsome, formidable and extraordinary vow to remain celibate even while being leading a life of royalty.
Soon after Santanu married Satyavati he had two children: Citrangada and Vicitravirya. Citrangada was a formidable and a glorious ksatriya. His fame became so much that his fame spread even in the celestial regions. In the celestial regions there was a celestial gandhava of the same name Citrangada and he could not tolerate the fame of this earthly Citrangada; and he challenged him to a fight. And also Bhisma was the older brother; but when one ksatriya is challenged to a fight by another ksatriya nobody can come to intervene. So, the two Citrangada fought and although it was a long and fierce fight, eventually the Gandharva won and he killed Citrangada. Then only one son named Vicitravirya remained.
In the Vedic culture there was monarchy. Monarchy is different from dictatorship that we have today. Dictatorship or autocracy where often the power is vested in one person; and that one person is often untrained, power hungry, brutal, exploitative and corrupt, and such a person’s rule makes the lives of subjects into a living hell often. That was not the kind of king that would be there in the Vedic culture. Monarchy means that one king will be there, but it will be a divine monarchy in the sense that the king would be trained by competent leadership and guides, and there would be a dynasty which would go generation after generation, and the kings would be trained in that dynastic succession and a son would be begotten in such a dynasty. The princes would right from the early childhood receive training from the ministers, king, sages and the Brahmins; and such a person would know the spiritual values of life and would know that he is meant to rule the kingdom as a representative of God and take care as a servant leader of the citizens, both materially and spiritually.
Normally there is also the principle of Karma that is involved over here, and when a Brahmana and a brahmini unite in a proper brahminical way they attract a soul of brahminical disposition into their lives, and then such a soul takes forward the brahminical qualities which have been brought from the actions of the previous lives that were done. That’s how the soul has taken birth in a brahminical family, and a person also gets further brahminical qualities developed by being brought up in a brahminical
upbringing culture. Both ways the brahmincial qualities gets reinforced; and similarly with respect to the ksatiya qualities also. So, the birth was not all important, but birth is also not unimportant, because we understand that birth does not happen by chance. This life is not the only life, and birth in a particular family is determined by one’s karma. That means that when a Ksatriya and a ksatrani unite together and they are properly married in a proper cultured way, then the soul who is attracted to their womb through them to the world is a soul who has ksatriya qualities from a previous life, and those ksatriya qualities are again supplemented or further developed and complemented by this life’s upbringing; and this way a competent king would be there in the linage. Now competent king was needed and Vicitravirya was to become that king because Bhisma had taken the vow that he would not become the king.
When Maharaja Santanu departed from the world, Vicitravirya was supposed to become the king, and now because Vicitravirya didn’t have any father the responsibility fell on his elder brothers. So, Bhisma himself decided to arrange for the marriage of his brother. It is a difficult responsibility because he is young, virile, powerful, handsome and a glorious male himself. And he had to arrange not a queen for himself, but a queen for his brother and he went around this task and went to the swambhar where three princess: Amba, Ambika and Ambalika were being offered and there are various ways in which the ksatriya’s have their marriages done. So, the swambharas happen at different ways in different times. In some cases certain test is set and the purpose of the test is that the most meritorious ksatriya would be able to win. Bhisma thought that it was a similar test that has been set up over here. When this came up he challenged all the ksatriyas over there. He challenged and they were surprised, and they fought with him and Bhisma overpowered all of them, and after overpowering all of them he came like a hawk and powerfully without being stopped by anyone he won the swambhara and took all these three princes and he returned to his kingdom, Hastinapur with all the three princess in tow. Now in the heat of the moment the whole plan was that he did not expect any complications because Swambhara means that the most competent ksatriya shows his prowess and then that ksatriya wins the princesses. Now he had showed his prowess and now he had desired the princess not for himself but for his brother. But by the time he reached his kingdom one of the kings who offered his stiffest resistance was King Salya, and Salya fought fiercely and it was an intense fight but eventually Bhisma had overpowered him also, and after being overpowered he left.
Then by the time after heat of moment was getting over and they reached and they introduced to princess to Vicitravirya, Amba one of the three princesses approached him and told him that she had already given her heart to Salya and the plan was that in the Swambhara – Salya was also a valorous prince and he would win her in the Swambhara, but they had not anticipated Bhisma’s power, and that’s why although
Salya had although tried his best he had been overpowered, and she said that she had already given her heart to Salya. When Bhisma heard this he felt that this is a moral dilemma. Naturally if she wanted to marry someone else he did not want to force her to get married to someone else. So, he honorably had her arranged to return back to Salya. Now when she went to Salya, Salya was already mortified because he had already been defeated in a war and as per the code of ksatriya honor he felt that he had been dishonored by the defeat, and so he said, “You have already been carried away by another man Bhisma and I cannot accept you.” So, Amba felt her heart breaking under her and she said, “No, I didn’t go willingly. I was carried away forcibly and the first opportunity I got to explain things to him I did explain to him, and immediately he has sent me back honorably. Please accept me. What can I do?” Salya felt his ksastriya honor, “How can I accept her as a queen. I am meant to set the rule for others, I have to be exemplary. A woman who has lived with another man, how can I accept her as my queen? What example would I be setting for my citizens by this?
She said, “No, but it was all against my will and nothing unproper has happened between us.” Salya said, “Bhisma has carried you away. He should either marry you away or he should give you to Vicitravirya.” Now Vicitravirya by this time had also heard about Amba’s desire and when Amba went back to Hastinapur he said that, “How can I accept a woman who is my wife but whose heart is longing for some other man, who is sighing for some other man.” Then she said, “Bhisma you had arranged all this. So, you are responsible. So, now you should marry her.” Then Bhisma said, “I can’t do that because I have taken a vow of celibacy. You know that it is impossible.” So, he said, “I will have you honorably returned back to your father’s place.”
Amba said, “I cannot go back to my father’s place. I have been utterly dishonored over there. What face will I show over there in that kingdom?” Life sometimes is so complex. It throws us in dilemmas which has no easy resolution, and when he saw that Bhisma was unrelenting she decided to go to the forest, and in the forest she met various sage’s and she just refused to go back to her kingdom, and she went on her own to a hermitage of sages in the forest and started crying bitterly. The sages were large hearted and they asked her what was the cause of her grief and she explained to them. One of the sages there was actually her grandfather who had been a rajasri and now had renounced the world and had become a rishi. He was angered and he said that such a person should be punished. He said, “Bhisma has wronged you and he should be punished. Wait for some time. Let Parsuram come here. Parsuram is going to come and he is not only a brahmana but also has kastriya prowess, and Bhisma is his student. Surely he will set things right for you.” Parsuram soon came there and once he came there it was a terrible thing that happened in the sense that Amba was crying bitterly, grievously and finally her whole plight was told. Then Parsuram told, “I have
already given up my weapons. I am not going to fight anymore. I have fought against the ksatriya’s twenty one times and I will not fight anymore.”
She said, “Please, how can you see such injustice happening. Please help me.” Parsuram said, “Ok, how can I help you right now. I will not take up arms again, but if a brahmana asks me I will not refuse.” And finally one of his own disciples seeing Amba’s plight and grief and her helplessness requested, “Please do something to protect her.” So, Parsuram couldn’t refuse the request of a brahmana. And now we have to understand that it was not that Parsuram was unwilling to help, but he had already fought against the world ksatriyas twenty one times and his feeling was that, “I had already fought and it is not proper for a brahmana to pick up weapons. But I have done that because I had to protect brahminical culture. Kartivir Arjuna who represented Ksatriyas had become so power hungry, insensitive, uncultured and so cruel that he had dared for a small reason to kill a great rishi and my father Jamadagni.” So, he had rid the world of the impious ksatriyas 21 times, but thereafter he felt that now the impious ksatriyas have been removed from the world, and then he had actually bathed in the seventh panchak and he had performed austerities and he had decided to give up his weapons. So, he was not ready to take up weapons again but when a brahmana requested the idea was that still he was a brahmana and he felt that he had responsibility to protect the brahminical culture and so he accepted the request, and then he went to Bhisma. When Bhisma saw that Parsuram who happened to be his martial teacher came there he offered him the highest respect and he offered him all grace and honor; but Parsuram was still angry. He said after having the story of Amba; “What have you done. You have ruined this woman’s life. You must set things right and marry her.”
Bhisma looked at his preceptor gravely and he said, “You know that I have taken a vow and I cannot break my vow, and therefore I cannot marry her.”
Parsuram said, “If you do not marry her, then you have to fight with me.”
Parsuram was very angry and he goaded Bhisma, and Bhisma said, “You are my worshipable elder and I cannot fight with you, but still I cannot dishonor my word, and as you are not considering the whole situation and you are giving me an instruction which is against dharma.” Now actually ksatriya dharma is very complex over here. Bhisma had taken a vow at another time, at another place that he would never marry so that he would not have any progeny who would act as competitors to Satyavati’s progeny. On the other hand ksatriya’s also has another duty that when a woman asks for shelter from him he cannot refuse that shelter. Now what was he to do? This is what we will see repeatedly in the Mahabharat; there is moral conflict and there is ethical conflict. Moral
conflict means that one thing is right and then another thing is wrong, and then moral conflict requires inner strength. Suppose somebody is tempted by something, it is clearly wrong. Say a husband and wife have a relationships but one of them is tempted for some extra marital relationship. There their lines of morality are fairly clear that it is immoral, and one needs inner strength to just resist the temptation. Not easy in some situations, but what it requires primarily is moral strength. But in contrast, with that ethical crisis is, when there are two options there are two courses of action possible and both of them have some morality in it. But which is a higher morality and which is lower morality is something which is difficult to decide at such a time. That was what had happened to Bhisma over here. He had on one side given his word that he would never marry, and second was that Ksatriya had to protect. So, which was he to follow? He felt in this situation that he had no desire to ruin Amba’s life, but he just felt that things had become complicated without his intention and he had done what he could to set things right; he had sent her honorably back to Shalya, he was ready to honorably sent her back to her father, but she was not able to accept it and she felt that his vow of celibacy was not important. That was also important, but it was that he did not want to go against the fact that he had forsaken the kingdom, and he did not want any future conflict. If he was married and had sons they might stake claim and it would lead to conflict. It was not just the fact that he had taken a vow, and it was not just his vow, and it was not just the fact that he wanted to be known as a celibate. That was one aspect of it, but the purpose of the vow of celibacy was so that he could sacrifice for his father’s happiness, and so that that dynasty and that line from his father to Satyavati would continue. Now he had that larger point to keep also. It might seem that it would be easy; there is a woman begging him to accept her and why is he saying no just for the sake of his vow. It was not just for the sake of his vow. Actually he was also thinking; Bhisma we will see later also, he tries his best to avoid internecine conflict in the Kuru dynasty. As much as possible he tries to avoid it, and his refusal here was also motivated by his desire to avoid conflict among the Kurus in the future. So, he refused, and now because of his desire to avoid the future conflicts within the Kuru dynasty he had to now face a conflict with his own teacher.
Parsuram then said, “I challenge you for a fight. If you are not going to follow my instructions you must fight with me.” And then they both decided that the fight would be held in Kurukshetra, and then Parsuram appeared before him on the war field, and Bhisma also came there, Bhisma’s supporters were there, Parsuram’s supporters also came, there were Brahmins and others. Amba was also there, and then Bhisma asked Parsuram, “I am on a chariot. Where is your chariot? How can I fight with you?” Parsuram laughed. He said, “I don’t need a chariot.” He gave a series of poetic verses saying the earth itself is a chariot, the wind will be my horses and the Vedas will be my
arrows. Like that he gave a metaphorical description of how he as a Brahmin was going to fight, and from the ground itself he shot a volley of arrows, and surprised by the ferocity and the speed of that attack Bhisma countered, and as he countered he found that just as the arrows were settling down he found that suddenly there was a magnificent and giant chariot had appeared. And the same disciple of Parsuram who was Kritavarman who had actually earlier asked him to fight on behalf of Amba had now become his charioteer, and there was a fierce fight. That fight went from morning to evening, and when the fight got over in the evening Bhisma and Parsuram would get off their chariots and Bhisma would go down and bow before Parsuram as his elder, and then they would act very cordially thereafter. And this happened for five days. In the course of the fight at one particular fight Bhisma shot a set of arrows so fiercely that the arrows almost pierced through Parsuram and he fell unconscious. Seeing this all the Brahmins cried out in sorrow, and even Bhisma was struck by grief. He thought, “What a lamentable thing have I done. What a grievous act I have done that I have shot my own preceptor.” That was very bad. Then he quickly looked up and he found that Parsuram had got up. His body was bloody but he was licking his lips in anger, and Parsuram said, “Bhisma just watch.” And Parsuram’s feeling enraged at this severe blow by Bhisma shot back fiercely. In a short time he shot such arrows that Bhisma just couldn’t counter and Bhisma was thrown off his chariot by the sheer force of the arrows that hit him and he fell a long distance away, and all the Brahmins in the side of Parsuram cheered but still they thought that Bhisma would be knocked down and killed but Bhisma got up and the fight went on day in and day out, and like that the fight went on for over twenty days. Finally they just didn’t know that 27 days happened and Bhisma started tiring. He said, “How will I ever be able to overcome?” At that time as he was thinking in the evening and the next morning, during that time he had a vision, and it said that, “You are actually meant to win this. So, you will get a weapon.” He saw some mystical vision in which he saw some sages and the sages said that, “Use this weapon and by this you will win.” He had several celestial weapons already with him, and he was given a particular weapon also, and he used that weapon, and the next morning as the fight was going on he took this weapon and then when he put that Samprasa weapon on his arrow and he was about to shoot, at that time when Parsuram saw that weapon – he was well versed in all the weapons and he knew that this weapon could not be countered, and he said, “Alas Bhisma. Now I am dead.” And Parsuram almost put aside his bow, and as he took that fearsome fatal weapon on his bow and arrow certainly inauspicious omens came in the sky, and as inauspicious omens came in the sky, at that time the great sages appeared over there. The astharishis appeared and the other sages appeared, and they told Bhisma, “The time for Parsuram’s death has not come. Please don’t use this weapon.”
Actually before this Ganga devi had come before the battle had started and when she saw that they were about to assemble in a martial spirit she asked, “What had happened? What was going on?” She came to know that her very dear, cherished and beloved son was going to fight with a formidable Parsuram. She was horrified, and she first begged first to Bhisma, “Please don’t fight.” He said, “No, he has challenged. I have to fight.” And then she went back to Parusram, “Please he is your younger. Please don’t fight with him.” He said, “He has refused to follow my instructions. So, I have to fight with him. Unless he obeys my instructions there is no other way.” Ganga had been grieving, but at this particular point various celestials came and told to Bhisma, “Do not use this weapon.” Meanwhile Parsuram had not seen this and he had put aside his bow, and then as he was about to shoot the bow Parsuram put aside his weapons. The celestials told Bhisma that this arrow should not be shot. Then Bhisma was caught in a dilemma, “Should I or should I not shoot?” On one side he knew that this was the weapon by which he would win; on the other side he didn’t want to disobey the sages. Also he had never really wanted to fight with his preceptor. Seeing all these considerations he hesitated, and then finally Parsuram not knowing he thought that he was going to be defeated, and then he put aside his weapon. And then when no arrows came and Parsuram did not pick his weapons, then Bhisma also put aside his weapon, and went and fell at the feet of Parsuram, and Parsuram embraced him and said, “You have become my most illustrious disciple. I am proud of you.” And after that Parsuram turned towards Amba and he told her, “You have seen me exert myself to the fullest capacity. There is nothing more than I can do. Now you can go wherever you like.” In this way Bhisma demonstrated what a formidable warrior he was; that that great warrior who had overpowered the Ksatriyas 21 times singlehandedly was in a sense vested by Bhisma. Parsuram could not overcome Bhisma and Bhisma almost overcame Parsuram but he did not kill him at the instructions of the Ksatriyas. Now Amba, she felt fury, helplessness, bitterness, all come up within her heart. Sometimes life offers very strange and terrible twists to us, and when this happens there is not much that we can do about it. We just have to accept it, and we just understand that this is my past karma coming upon me, and if I don’t accept it, then it will create further problems for me in the future. But unfortunately instead of accepting the karmic complications – that does not mean that we have to accept injustice, but it just means that in responding to what has happened if we create further complications and do further activities which complicate and aggravate, then we all get trapped in a whole net of Karmic entanglements from which there is no easy way out. That is what happened to Amba. She performed a lot of austerities, and she stood on the banks of a river and performed austerities; then Ganga Devi came there. She asked, “What are you doing?” And then she told her, “Actually I want to take revenge against Bhisma. He said, “This is a very impious desire that you have. Whatever has happed is because of one’s karma, and so one should not desire to
take revenge against others. Just accept it and don’t have such an evil desire.” She said, “No, I cannot give up this desire.” Then Ganga cursed her that she would change into a dry and ugly river; and because of Ganga’s curse that is what happened to Amba, but because she had also performed a lot of austerities and because of the power of her austerities half of her part became a river, but the other part remained. And eventually she performed a lot of austerities, pleased Lord Siva, and Lord Siva told her, “I want to be the cause of the death of Bhisma.” Lord Siva said, “So be it.” She said, “How will it be possible?” Lord Siva said, “This will definitely happen. This is my word.” Then she performed austerities, and the saying “For the sake of the death of Bhisma.” She eventually gave her body. And in her next life she was born as Shikandhi. Actually she or he was born as a female. At that time Drupada had performed austerities and he had done yajna to Lord Siva to get a son. And Lord Siva said, “Yes, the yajna had been done well.” but eventually when the child was born they found that the child was not a male, but a female. And they were extremely disappointed. But then the Drupada’s queens said that, “Actually Lord Siva’s words will definitely come true. If he said it is prince it will be prince.” Then they had the news spread in the kingdom that he had got a son, and now he was a girl, and they got news that he is a son, and a very few selected palace confidents knew about the truth. Now as the prince or the princess whatever you want to call; Shikandhini or Shikandini whatever you call, as he grew up and when the time of the marriage came Drupada decided to have the marriage done with a princess because he was a prince, and then they were shocked that how is it possible. The king and the queen were in dilemma, but they said, “No, Lord Siva has said that the words will come true”, and then finally they got the marriage done with a powerful king of a neighboring kingdom, and then the marriage was done and the princess came to the kingdom, and then eventually the news came out and the princess came to know that she had been married to not a boy but to a girl. He was horrified and he sent news to his father and his father was enraged, and he came with an army right to attack Drupada. Now Drupada had his army but still this king was a formidable king, and how was he going to fight alone and singlehandedly against all of them? He didn’t want to have bloodshed and he was thinking of ways to avoid it. In the meanwhile Shikandhi Shikandhini felt very morose that she had become the cause of great conflict and she left home, and then she went into the forest and in the forest she saw a palace. When she went to the forest she was crying and some yakshas were there; the forest belonged to the yakshas and the yakshas were kindly people. Now some yakshas are kindly and some yakshas are brutal; even among the celestials there are different kinds. So, this yakshas were kindly and they asked, “What has happened? We will help you.” She said, “Nobody can help me.” They said, “No. We have special powers. We can help you. What is it?” At that time she agreed. Shikandhini told the whole story and as she was crying bitterly and telling the whole story, this yakshas said, “I will definitely help
you.” Still not with much hope he asked, “But how can you help me?” He said that, “For the time period I will offer you my gender.” This was gender transfer without a surgery. The celestials have higher powers and they were able to do such things. This was quite miraculous and when she came back to the kingdom; she now had become a he. When the news came to the princess, the princess came and met the prince and she found that the he is a prince and not a princess, and she was mystified and also delighted. And Drupada had sent a message to the invading king that, “There has been some misunderstanding. Don’t doubt anything. If you want you can come and check with your own daughter.” and when he came and checked with his daughter he checked that everything was alright, and then the two kings met cordially and everything was settled.
In the meanwhile the yaksha who had done this favor he was modified because he had temporarily become a female. At that time Kuvera came to the Yaksha’s palace as he was travelling through the heavens and when he saw that his assistant is not coming to meet him, he asked, “What is happening?” And in this way the whole issue became quite complex.