Mahabharata Characters 04 – Bhishma 03 – A test of faith
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
We are discussing the third part of the Bhisma series. We discussed how Bhisma took a very fierce vow of a lifelong celibacy in the first part. In the second part we discussed about the fatal complication by which Bhisma unintentionally ended up antagonizing Amba who took a vow to kill him, and by the benediction of Siva was reborn as Shikhandi. He or she was born as a female – Shikhandini, and believing the words of Siva that their offspring would be a male Drupada and his wife announced in his kingdom that they had got a prince and eventually they got him married to a princess, and when Shikandini seeing the confusion that had resulted, went to the forest and she was helped by a Yaksha named Stuna who exchanged the gender with her, and that’s how Shikhandini became Shinkandi and returned back to the palace, and then all the confusion and the fury had been created because of the princess of Dasharana telling her father that how he had been married to a girl. So, the father had come to attack Drupada, but by that time Shikhandini had changed her gender to Shinkandi, and the two kings met and everything was pacified, and Stuna had told that for this time you will have my gender; but at that time Yaksha came to visit Sthuna, and seeing that Sthuna had nonchalantly given away his gender, he said, “You have disgraced us Yakshas by accepting a female gender like this. So, I curse you that you will have to stay with this female gender.” Other Yakshas over there begged to Kuvera, and they said, “Actually it was only out of compassion that he did this. He saw a damsel in distress and he could not tolerate her distress. That’s why he did this. So, please don’t punish him so severely.” Then Kuvera said, “As long as you live; as long as Shikandi is alive, you will have a female gender. When Shikandi dies, then you will get the male gender back.” After this Kuvera departed, and then Shikandi came back to return the male gender to Sthuna, and Stuna told him, “You will have this gender throughout your life.” Now at this point we may wonder, isn’t the idea of somebody just being able to transfer the gender like that sound very fantastic? Actually it is not because ultimately the soul is different from the body, and the soul doesn’t have any gender, and the soul gets a particular body with its associated gender based on one’s karma, and those who are having higher powers and those who are living beings living in higher loka’s or higher levels of existence have higher powers. Just as we can change a few things by our capacities; like a person may have a very thin, skinny flesh or body; and that person can do exercise and can change the body from very skinny to muscular and strong; that means we have particular capacity to do some small changes. But the devatas, the higher
beings and the yakshas are not entirely on the same level as Indra or his associates, but they are also higher beings than humans. So, they have certain powers, and today we also develop some powers by science and technology. We do surgeries that do gender change. What is possible for us after great effort through some mechanical and surgical adjustments is possible for the higher beings by some karmic adjustments. Karmic adjustments means that the devatas have by their higher karma have got the post of the devatas and they have the power to make changes in the material level.
The Bhagavad-gita explains in the thirteenth chapter that all of us have been given a certain kind of ksetra. Krishna describes that this body is our ksetra; it is our field of influence and different souls depending on their karmas have been given different spheres of influence. An amoeba has a very tiny sphere of influence; a blue whale has a giant sphere of influence. Its own body itself is giant and it can control other beings also with its body. So, depending on karma different people have been given different spheres of influence. This sphere of influences is the body and the capacities that are there in the body. Just like we can’t fly but the birds can fly. Similarly, the higher beings have power to bring about changes in the material level which we can’t bring about unless we do great efforts to surgery. For example, if Indra’s elephant gets injured; in sixth canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam it is described, in the fight with Vritrasura and Indra Vritrasura caught the mace that Indra had thrown and he threw it back at Airavat, and Airavat’s tusk broke and his face became bloodied. So, Indra just touched his hand and by touching the hand Airavat got healed. Now this is not magical. This is the power that Indra as a God has. We have to apply some ointment or do some surgery and then after that healing will take place. That is how we bring about. We have limited influence in matter and by that we can acquire greater efforts to bring changes in material things, but the devatas have got higher power and that is how they can bring about changes in the material things more quickly. That’s how this gender change happened, and after this happened Shikhandi went back happily and Shikandi then knew that, “I am born to take the life of Bhisma.” Bhisma knew about this because Bhisma after all was a diplomat and he knew that Amba was dangerous and had taken a vow to take revenge against him; in fact she had provoked Parsuram to fight against him, and so he had always kept spies to keep a watch on her, and then he knew that she had performed austerity to Siva to gain a benediction, and then she knew that she was born again as Shikhandi.
Bhisma treated Shikandi as if she were like a woman and that’s why we will see in the later time when the war took place and Shikhandi was shooting Bhisma he did not fight back. Bhisma did not shoot back arrows because the Ksatriya principle is that, a Ksatriya does not fight with or attack a woman. And he saw her as a woman because that was what she was in her previous life, and that is how Shikhandi eventually
became the cause of the death of Bhisma. Here we see that although Bhisma did not give up his vow and although he knew that Amba was going to be the cause of her death, he did not interfere with her austerities and he did not stop her because he knew that if I have done something and if that is my karma I will get the reaction. So, he did not give up his vow, but he did not like a politician want to stamp her out, and then not only that; even when Shikandi came he out of a code of honor refused to attack her. That we will see later on.
Now in the meanwhile when all these was happening, we have gone through three generations now. There was Pratipa whose son was Santanu, and Santanu’s sons were several. There was Bhisma who took a vow of celibacy. He had no descendents. Then there was Chitrangada who died before marriage; there was Vicitravirya who had now two wives: Ambika and Ambalika. Amba was also brought from the Swambhara for him only, but she refused to marry him, and she wanted to marry Bhisma, and the whole story happened. Through Ambika and Ambalika Vicitravirya was expected to beget the next king, but unfortunately Vicitravirya became sick and he to infected by a terrible disease and he died without producing any heir for the throne. Now again there was a great crisis. If there is no king then the enemies will attack. Even from within the thieves and the rogues will become more and more reckless, fearless and shameless and they will plunder the citizens, and such a king will plunge into chaos and will bring misery to everyone. That’s why it is the responsibility of the royal family to ensure that responsible kings are entrusted the responsibility, and all these while Bhisma was acting as the caretaker king when Vicitravirya had departed. Then Satyavati who was the step mother of Bhisma approached Bhisma and she told him that the only way our dynasty will continue is if you produce progeny; you have to get married. Bhisma said, “This is impossible.” She said, “It is for your father’s sake that you decided that you will take a vow of celibacy. Now it is for your father’s sake that you have to get married. How will your father’s dynasty and your great dynasty continue if you don’t get married?” He said, “No, I cannot do that. I have taken a vow and in no circumstances can that vow be changed. That was itself a part of my vow that under no circumstance can my vow be changed.” And as he was thinking she said, “No, you have to think about the larger wellbeing of our community, of our kingdom.” He said, “O mother, don’t ask from me something which is impossible for me to do. There will surely be some other way and this is a test of faith for us.” Then she came with another proposal. Actually here Bhisma had all justification to give up his vow of celibacy if he had wanted to. He had taken the vow of celibacy for a particular purpose and that was at the bidding of Satyavati’s father, and now that same Satyavati was telling him to give up his vow.
Sometimes we take us some resolution and if we are just half hearted, then we are looking for some justification to giving up the resolution. But Bhisma’s resolutions were
like lines in stone. No question of breaking them. When he refused he remained strong amidst his convictions knowing that if we stay strong in our convictions, then even if there seems to be all reasons to give up the conviction some way will come out, and proper resolution will emerge. Then Satyavati offered him another proposal. In the Vedic culture the begetting of successors was very important and there was a tradition: devarena sutotpattim; that means if the husband dies, then the woman needs to have a child who will become the successor in the dynasty. Then she can get a successor from her brother-in-law; that is from the brother of the husband. Now we may consider that this doesn’t seem to be moral, but in the Vedic culture the primary emphasis was not so much on sexual enjoyment as it was on the begetting of progeny, and the primary purpose of marriage was also considered the begetting of progeny. So, in emergency situations it was allowed and in fact it was recommended that if the dynasty was in a danger of not continuing, then the king can ask somebody else, especially his brother. If the king has passed away, then the brother can take the responsibility and can beget children in the brother’s wife and that way the dynasty can continue. Then Satyavati requested Bhisma that if you don’t want to get married, then just beget progeny in Amba an Ambalika. He said, “I can’t do that also. My vow is about just not marrying. My vow is a vow of celibacy. Celibacy means that I cannot do this.” Then Satyavati became very pensive, and then she told a secret that she didn’t tell anyone from her husband’s family. When she had been unmarried, at that time she was living in the banks of the sacred river Ganga and many pilgrims would come by that way. Her father had told her that, “For you to get a good husband and for you to have a good life you should do seva or service, and the service she was asked to do was: you should in your boat take the sages and the pilgrims across that river who come along that area. That’s how you should do service.” and she would do this service dutifully along with her other family duties in home. Many times she would ferry sages across the river. At that time the great sage Parasar Muni came over there; and when Parasar Muni came over there and he boarded the boat and then they started going along. This particular incident is often misinterpreted and misrepresented. Some people say that as Satyavati was rowing the boat, Parasar Muni looked at her and got attracted to her body’s contours being highlighted when she was rowing the boat, and then he had union with her because of that bodily attraction. That is a very partial and distorted understanding of the whole story. Parasar Muni is a great sage.
What happened was, as he was going in that river – in the Vedic culture it is understood that there are auspicious time and there are inauspicious times, and certain things if they are done at auspicious times bring enormous results. Now we may say that, what is your idea of auspicious and inauspicious times? But we understand that the whole universe is an interconnected network; that doing certain activities at certain times
brings different result than doing at other times. For example, if a farmer is to do farming, then somebody may say, “What is so great about farming. You just plow the fields, sow the seeds and then they will grow.” No. The farmers know that the plowing and the sowing has to be done at a particular time; a particular time before the rains come or a particular time when the sun is going to be at a particular level of heat depending on whether we want Rabi crops or Kharif crops. The important point is that the timing is required, because farming is not just an isolated activity. Farming is a connected activity, farming is a human activity in the sense that human beings have to farm, but along with that it is connected with the environment, and if it is a time when the rains are going to come, then that right timing ensures that there would be abundant yield, and if the sowing and ploughing is done at a wrong time, then no matter how much endeavor is put the right result will not come at that time. Similarly, it is said that in the case of union between male and female it is not just an activity between the male and female, just as sowing the seed in the ground is not just an activity between the farmer and the field. Even the environment and the season and the right timing of the season is involved. Similarly, the male female union should not just be done based on the desires of both of them. Actually if an auspicious time is chosen and a proper consciousness is cultivated, then the progeny that is attracted at that particular time at that consciousness is glorious.
In the Bhagavatam there is also the story of how Diti attracted or seduced her husband Kasyap to unite with her at the wrong time, and because of that she begot terrible progeny – the demons Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu who wrecked terror all over the universe. So, the timing is also important.
As Parasar Muni was going in the boat with Satyavati he saw, he looked at the formation of the celestial bodies, he looked at the signs that were evident in the atmosphere and the sky, he understood that this is the time for a great soul to be born, and then he told Diti that this is the time at which the supreme Lord desires to appear in this world as a literary incarnation and if you become an instrument you become a part of the Lord’s plan, then you will be blessed. Now Satyavati was shocked. She said, “How can I do such a thing? I am not married and I cannot do this, and even if I do this I will lose my virginity and then who will marry me? Parasar Muni told her, “Don’t worry. If you do this as a service to the Lord to bring a great soul into this world you will not lose your virginity. You will maintain your virginity and not only that you will get a special blessing. Because you will bring a great soul into this world who will spread in this world fragrance of spiritual knowledge your body which will be the womb through which this great soul will appear will also become fragrant. Now she was a fisherwoman and because of that her body had a typical fishy sort of smell. Now when Parasara Muni explained to her she agreed, and then as they were going along in the river and they
were talking Satyavati’s father, the Matsya king was also watching when she was going along. Naturally a father wants to keep a watchful eye on his daughter. As they were going along the river Parasar Muni created a fog by his mystic powers and with his mystic powers he covered up everything, and not only that he created a fog, but within that fog he created actually an island over there, and then both of them united, and immediately the great soul Vyasadev appeared, and this Vyasadev was Dwaipaina Vyasa. The Dwaipana has many meanings. Dwaopaina means that he appeared in the junction of the two ages, and it also means a Dwipa. An island was created over there, and it was on the island that Vyasadev appeared, and Vyasadev also appeared in a very divine way. Not just the mysterious way that he was born, but also after his appearance he did not appear as a small baby who had to be breast fed and to be brought into life with extreme care. It was not that Satyavati became pregnant for nine months. No, there was union and immediately the child was born, and then Vyasadev immediately grew up and Vyasadev left from there, and Parasar Muni also left from there, and thereafter Satyavati’s body became transformed and she became very fragrant, and her father asked her what had happened. She said, I served Parasar Muni and he has blessed me in this way and it was this fragrance of her body that attracted Santanu to her. Now Satyavati had not told this to anyone in her husband’s family but she told this story to Bhisma, and she told him that, “If you cannot beget a child, then I will call Vysadev.”
Now Vyasadev was a great sage, but Vysadev was also a householder. We know Vyasasunu; Sukhadev Goswami is called as a son of Vyasadev. Vysadev when he left his mother he knew that his father Parasar Muni would not need him; sages are atmaram, they are self-sufficient, but he told his mother, “If any time you need me you can just think about me, and I will immediately come over there.” He had mystic powers. In the Vedic culture it is understood that there are different people who have different mystic powers. Just as I explained that the devatas have higher powers than what humans have; similarly sages also have higher powers. They can perceive what is being transmitted through vibrations in the mental level also. So, Satyavati told, “I can call Vyasadev.” and Bhisma became very happy, and he said, “Yes, it is very good. You should call Vyasadev and if you get progeny through such a great sage our whole dynasty will become blessed by it.” Then Satyavati went to Ambika and Ambalika and told them that they should become ready because their brother in law will come and he will beget a progeny through you. Ambika was the older among the two; she became ready. And now Ambika had no idea that they had some other brother in law. So, she was expecting Bhisma at that time, and then when at that time Vyasadev finally came he was summoned by Satyavati, and as soon as he came Satyavati told her what had happened and requested him to beget a progeny through Ambika and Ambalika.
Vyasadev had been performing austerities in the mountains and he said, “You give me some time because I am very unkempt and unclean right now. Then I will prepare myself for this.” She said, “No, we cannot wait. There were two sons and both of them died and there were no progeny left. It was a national emergency. This cannot wait. Please it does not matter. You do it right away.” Then Vyasadev went to Ambika’s chambers. Now Ambika was expecting Bhimsa over there, and she saw this stranger; the ksastriyas are physically attractive, the sages are not physically attractive. When the ksatrani saw a sage – now the sage could be respected by her from a distance, but to be united with a sage, and such a sage also who was not looking very clean, who had the signs of austerity on his body and his body was emaciated, and at one level you could also say that the body was ugly. So she just got completely mortified, and when Vyasadev came closer to her she just couldn’t tolerate it. She just closed her eyes completely and then Vyasadeva united with her, and then Vyasadev left. Satyavati was just waiting outside and she asked, “What happened?” He said, “She was troubled to see me and because of that she closed her eyes, and because she closed her eyes she also permanently closed the eyes of the infant that was born. The child that would be born would be extremely powerful, will be a worth ksatriya in term of physical strength but he will be blind.” On hearing this Satyavati was devastated. She said, “How can a blind person become a king? The king has to fight. He needs to have eyes. He needs to have a complete body. Please do it once more.” You go to the other princess Ambalika and beget through her.
Now Ambika had told Ambalika what to expect and so Ambalika was a little bit more prepared, but still when she saw Vyasadev her whole face turned pale, and then when Vyasadev and Ambalika united, at that time because she had turned pale Vyasadev went and told Satyavati, “Because she has turned pale the child that will be born will have a pale complexion, but still he will be a great hero.” Now when she heard this she thought, “What does this mean by pale complexion?” Because he had a pale complexion he became known as Pandu later on. And she said, “Ok, one son is blind, one son is going to be a good warrior but will be pale. But still, in case something goes wrong we will need one more son. She said, “You go once again.”
Now neither of the two sisters Ambika and Ambalika were ready to unite with Vyasadev, and this time what they did was, they got a maidservant over there to sit in their place. The maidservant was not a ksatrani, and she did not have the expectations of a ksatriya coming to unite with her. So, when she saw this great sage coming she immediately got up, washed his feet and worshipped him, and served him very respectfully, and then Vyasadev united with her; and then because she was in a very receptive prayerful consciousness, and because Vyasadev being a sage was also in devotional consciousness always the child that was born through that was a very virtuous, learned
and saintly person. That was Vidura. And then when Vyasadev came out and Satyavati asked, “What happened?” Then Vyasadev told that the sisters had kept a maidservant over there. Satyavati was infuriated and dejected. She said, “If we have a half son how can he be the king? He will not be a proper ksatriya.” Vyasadev saw immediately what was in the mind of Satyavati. He said, “No, no more. As a sage it is important for me to conserve my energy. I have already expended my energy three times and I cannot expend my energy anymore. You will have to be satisfied with what has happened.” This may seem immoral at one level, but we see Vyasadev’s focus was not on enjoyment. If he had just wanted enjoyment he would have accepted Satyavati’s proposal and gone again and again to enjoy with the queens, but his purpose was just the production of progeny. Later on in Mahabharat when Dhritarastra and Pandu are born Vyasadev comes and repeatedly interacts with Dhritarastra. Dhritrastra always treats Vyasadev as a sage, and Vyasadev always treats Dhritarastra as a king. They don’t treat each other as father and son although Vyasadev had begotten them. Because it was done as a service.
When a brother in law begets a child in his sister-in-laws womb that child is considered to be the son of the brother, not the brother in law. That is why Dhritarastra never refers Vyasadev as his father, and Vyasadev never refers Dhritrastra as a king. In today’s sexually surcharged culture where people think of sexual union primarily for enjoyment, and where they incidentally think about procreation that is very little in the minds of people. There was one European who said, “Practically all of America and Europe is born with two people having glasses of wine on Saturday night.” So, people often think of sex as primarily for enjoyment, and procreation is considered incidental by product. With such a contaminated attitude we may not be able to understand this particular concept but the important point is the culture; it is not that sex was not a part of Vedic culture. It is. Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita that sex life is not contrary to dharmic principles, but is a manifestation of the divine. The man and the woman who unite get an opportunity to act as co-creators with God in bringing new life into this world. So, sex is also a way to experience the divine, but that is when it is within the precincts of the dharma and procreation is the focus. That was the focus of Vyasadev and that’s why he did not get contaminated at all, and rather he did this service and he left. And here we see again in this whole pastime that Bhisma’s did not swerve from his duty, and because he did not swerve from his duty, eventually some other arrangement was made. That also shows Bhisma’s invincibility not just in terms of fighting in war and how he was invincible to the attacks of the foremost of all warriors, Parsuram; but here we see that he is invincibility even to temptations. Even when there was all justifications to give up his vow and give in to temptations, he refused to succumb to temptations. Such a great person was Bhisma, and no wonder he is called as one of the Mahajanas in the
Bhagavata; one of the twelve great personalities who teach dharma in an exemplary way by their words as well as their actions.
Thank you very much.