Mahabharata Characters 06 – Bhishma 05 – The sacrifice of reputation for devotion
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 continuing on our discussion on Bhisma Pitama.
Naturally when we discuss these different characters their lives will overlap; and when their lives overlap we will discuss certain incidents very briefly in one character’s life just to have the narrative flow going on. We will discuss those details more in detail when we discuss another character because they are having more relevance in that characters life.
Bhisma is a character whose presence extends almost through the entire Mahabharat; at least the entire parts of Mahabharata which are of most significance. That’s why while we are discussing his life we are more or less catching out the whole story of the Mahabharat in an outline and we will be emphasizing those parts of the story which feature Bhisma in a central role, and the other parts of the story we will discuss later.
We stopped last time at Kindam Rishi cursing Pandu saying that, “Just as when I was in the act of procreation you shot me and killed me, but you did it ignorantly, you didn’t know that I was a human being. So, you will not be punished with death, but in the future if you decide to unite similarly with you wives, then you will die at that time” and saying this Kindom rishi departed from the world and his wife also departed with him, and from that time Pandu took a very severe vow of celibacy and both his wives helped him to maintain that vow, but somehow after fifteen years of celibacy he got attracted to Madri and then he passed away, and Madri also departed with him and Kunti came back to Hastinapur; and in this way Bhisma became the caretaker or the surrogate father. He was actually the grandfather, but he had to act like the father of the Pandavas because there were no other male figure and till this time because Pandu had departed from the world and his sons had not played any role in the kingdom at that time, so Bhisma and the Kuru elders were training Dhritarastras sons, especially the eldest son, Duryodhana to become the successor, and Duryodhana was a very pampered child and he was also not very well behaved or cultured. And because of this he often was displeasing to others; but still because he was going to be the successor everyone was pampering him and taking care of him, but when the Pandavas came back they were very cultured, gentle, respectful and very kind hearted, and the two contrasts between the characters of the Pandavas and the Kauravas was apparent to everyone; naturally the Pandavas won the hearts of people and they won the heart of Bhisma also.
Bhisma liked both the Pandavas and the Kauravas, but because the Panadavas didn’t have a father he took more care of them, and moreover because they were so virtuous, kind, refined, gentle and so cultured, naturally they occupied more of a place in their heart. Still he took care of both of them and he arranged to train them personally, and then he engaged Drona. Then Drona appeared to train them and he watched them grow to become worthy successors of the Kuru dynasty; but unfortunately they were not to live in harmony, and due to Duryodhana’s envy and his hunger for power incited by the evil schemes that Sakuni hatched – and he was infatuated by the power of Karna; he tried conspiracy against conspiracy against the pandavas and Bhisma was left to just watch. He was such a powerful ksatriya but he could do nothing. Bhima was poisoned and at Yudhisthira’s counsel the Pandava’s didn’t speak anything.
Bhisma was a shrewd diplomat. He could observe the tensions but he was hoping that the things would not go to a great extreme and eventually on Sakuni’s scheming the Pandava’s were sent to Varnarvat, and when the Pandavas were sent to Varnarvat they stayed in the house of flak which was burned, and coincidentally at that time the Nishada woman who had five children had come there, but she had drunk a lot and had fallen in a drunken stupor at that time when the fire was set, and because of that everybody thought that the Pandava’s had been killed along with their mother Kunti and Bhisma’s heart was shattered. Pandu and his wife had passed away and now his children had passed away, and now he felt responsible, and he could see the condemnation in the eyes of the citizens also. The citizens could make out that this fire was no accident. It was an act of arson and they considered the royal family with a conspiracy within it responsible for this, and Bhisma later on tells Dhritarastra, “O Dhritarastra! Do you know what is happening?”
Actually the Pandava’s survive and they have many adventures. Eventually they win the hand of Draupadi and when they allied with Drupada, at that time they reveal their identity. The Pandavas are there and Dhrtrarastra is faced with a conflict, “What to do?” Duryodhana has been ruling like the king and Dhritarastra has officially been the king since Pandu had departed, and the Pandava’s had also gone off the scene and the Pandavas had reappeared. So, what to do? So, Dhritarastra was discussing with his ministers and his counselors and Bhisma told him, “Call back the Pandava’s and give the kingdom. Do you know what the citizens are talking? Do you know how they are blaming you and all the elders for the injustice that had happened to the Pandavas?”
Since the time when the Pandava’s were rumored to have passed in fire I felt ashamed to come in public to face the people with anger and the condemnation in their eyes. Now is the time for you to set right the wrong that has been done. Call the Pandava’s back and give them the kingdom; give them half of the kingdom at least so that you will have your rule for Kauravas and Duryodhana, and the Pandava’s also will have their rightful share. So, Bhisma, Vidura and Drona; they all counseled like this and Dhritarastra realized that what they were saying was right and he called back the Pandava’s and he gave them half of the kingdom. But he gave a barren waste land; that was the Khandava Prasta, and Bhisma noticed the unfairness of the settlement. Suppose the father is a millionaire and the father has two sons, and one son is given one half of the industries worth a million dollars, and say half a million worth of industries are flourishing and let’s say half a million worth of industries are perishing or not at all profitable; if one son is given the flourishing half and the other son is given the perishing half, naturally that would be considered as unfair and even an outrageous settlement; but Yudhisthir was so virtuous that he accepted it. He considered his elders to be like God and he accepted their word. Bhisma had seen the unsettlement of the settlement, but he had taken a vow to serve the ruling monarch of Hastinapur and he was compelled to obey that. To obey that monarch’s will, he could only give good counsel, but when he had taken that vow before Satyavati’s father that not only he would ever usurp the Hastinapur King, but he would always remain faithfully as the servant of the Hastinapur king. He had never thought that such a thing would happen where such a conspiracy would be hatched by the Hastinapur rulers and he would have to stand by their side because of his vow. But by Krishna’s mercy Khandava Prasta was through the arrangement of Maya Danav and they transformed it into Indra Prasta, and then when the Pandava’s decided to perform the Rajasurya sacrifice, the four Pandavas went in four directions and they won over all the kings in the world and then they brought the tributes to Yudhisthira, and then the
Rajasurya yajna was performed at that time. That was the crowning glory of not just Yudhisthir’s life, but it was also Bhisma’s life.
Bhisma remembers this in the last moments of his life when he is about to depart from the world; rajasuryam esam. He says that, “When I was present in that assembly when Krishna was worshipped as the Agrapuja, that worship that is offered to the topmost person was offered to Krishna, and Bhisma remembers that day. So, Bhisma is delighted to see the success of the virtuous Pandava’s; and not only that he was delighted to see the glorification of the supreme Lord. That ultimately was his hearts longing that the Lord will be glorified and his devotees be glorified. When this magnificent Rajasurya yajna was performed Bhisma was also one of the elders who was assisting in the sacrifice, and then when the ababrad bathing was done for Yudhisthir and Draupadi, and then agra puja was to be performed; Who was to be chosen as the person? There was a lot of discussion going on. Sahadev proposed, “In this assembly there are great sages. There are even God over there, but no one is greater than Krishna, because Krishna is Visnu himself and he is the greatest of all great personalities and it is him to whom we should offer the agra puja.” When Sahadeva spoke this the whole assembly erupted with approval and joy and Bhisma’s heart flooded with more and more joy on seeing this, and yet there were envious people who not just became silent but enraged and they exploded. Leading among those envious people was Sisupal.
The Bhagavatam describes, “The king of Chedi Desh and others.” Sisupal said, “We thought that Yudhisthir was an intelligent king and that is why we agreed to offer tributes to him but no one knows varna of this Krishna, no one knows who is his parent, he lived as a cowherd, and he runs away from the battle and he has ran away from Jarasandh so many times. Now what is this heroism?” He started blaspheming Krishna like anything, and at that time when he spoke like this, the king started getting agitated. Many of the kings were pious and they could not tolerate this blasphemy; not just because some of them knew that Krishna was also the supreme Lord but they knew that Krishna was a powerful ruler and they did not like those criticisms at all. But Sisupal just went on and finally Bhisma spoke, and Bhisma said that, “Actually how can you consider Krishna not worthy of glorification?” and this is the time when Bhisma elaborately glorifies Krishna. This is the first time in the Mahabharat that Bhisma gets an opportunity in a public forum to speak the glories of his beloved Lord. Bhisma is a mahabhagavat, a great devotee and he knows the glories of Krishna and he relishes his glories, and he started speaking the pastimes of Krishna mentioning them in an outline right from the childhood, how Krishna killed so many demons who were terrorizing even the God’s, and how he lifted the Govardhana hill on his little finger for seven full days, and how that Kamsa who nobody could counter, how he was countered and crushed effortlessly without any weapons by Krishna, and he went on and on narrating the glories of Krishna. Bhisma said, “Who is there who can stand in front of Krishna in the battle? Who can be as glorious as him? He is glorious not just because of his status as Visnu, but also because of the deeds that he has performed in this very manifestation.” When Bhisma spoke like this everybody approved, and yet Sisupala scowled as did some of his followers. Sisupal said, “What is so great about that? There were some wizards and he killed them, and what is so big about him lifting up one piece of rock. I can also lift a piece of rock. There is nothing great about Krishna.” Then he said, “ This Krishna, his mind is polluted and those who associate with him their mind also gets polluted, and that’s why Bhisma’s mind has also got polluted.” Then he told Bhisma, “People glorify you because of taking up a vow of celibacy, but I will
tell the truth. Actually you are impotent and to hide your impotency you have taken this vow of celibacy.” This is one of the worst insults that can be offered to a male in general and to a ksatriya male in particular, and too a ksatriya ruler who is the greatest among the warriors. There is no more grievous insult that can be offered. A shocked silence fell over the whole assembly and Bhisma tolerated the insult, but Bhima could not tolerate it and Bhima leapt up like lion emerging from a cave about to pounce on small animals and devour them. And as Bhima was about to pounce on Sisupal, Sisupal took out his sword and was ready to fight, but Bhisma caught Bhima on his shoulder and checked him, and just as an ocean cannot go beyond the bounds of the shore, Bhima despite his fury could not resist or go against the will of Bhisma; and Bhisma told him, “O Bhima don’t worry. When the time is right Kesava will himself kill this wretch.” And he said, “What is his glory. He was already defeated at the time of the swambhara when Krishna took Rukmini. He is no match to Kesava. It is only because Kesava is tolerating that he is able to go on ranting like this.”
Bhisma although he had been insulted, he had such self-control that he did not himself explode. He could have taken up weapons and could have easily overpowered and killed Sisupal, but he was thinking of the overall good. He was thinking that if he raised weapons and there was a fight – normally in a sacrifice like a Rajasurya sacrifice it is a very sacred place, and blood should not be shed in that place. If blood is shed in that place; especially if human blood is shed, then the whole sacrifice becomes defiled and it becomes null and void. No fruits come from it, and Sisupal knew this and that’s why he was going on speaking inflammatory words trying to incite his opponent to raise his weapons. He in his intoxication was thinking that he had the prowess to fight with them, but he also knew that if the Rajasurya sacrifice arena became tainted with spilled blood, then the whole sacrifice will be spoiled, and that is also one of the reasons he was goading on. And then Krishna had given a promise to Sisupala’s mother that, “I will tolerate his insults for a hundred times but no more” and as Sisupala was ranting on and on speaking the insults he lost count but Krishna did not lose count, and as soon as the count exceeded hundred Krishna said that, “This person right from his childhood has been insulting me, but I have tolerated him, but today after honoring the word that I gave to his mother; that he has exceeded a count of hundred for blashphemy today I will kill him. And immediately Krishna summoned his sudarshan chakra, and the Sudarshan chakra appeared and Krishna just dispatched it and it just whizzed past the arena just across all the watching warriors. Sisupal had his sword raised up and he tried to move his sword to stop the sudarshana, but the sudarshan chakra came in such a blinding speed that his sword was rendered powerless against it and right in front of everyone the sudarshan Chakra performed a bloodless head transplantation. His head just knocked off and Sisupal fell down dead, but no blood was spilled. It was a miraculous way in which Krishna saved the sacrifice of Yudhisthir and he maintained the sanctity of the arena. Here Bhisma glorified the Lord of his heart and considered the glory of Yudhisthir more important than his own glory, and that’s why he tolerated the grievous insult and let Krishna in his own miraculous way set things right.
Bhisma is seen in the Mahabharat repeatedly as a great Ksatriya, as a knower of dharma, but in this particular incident he is also seen a devotee who is glorifying the Lord. His knowledge of dharma culminates in knowledge of pure devotion and that pure devotion centers on glorification of the supreme Lord’s prowess, his position, his amazing abilities, and tha’s what Bhisma does over here, and then after the Rajasurya sacrifice was performed Bhisma with a very joyous and jubilant heart returned
back to Hastinapur, but in contrast one heart was in a state of entirely opposite of joy and jubilation. That heart was the heart of Duryodhana who was burning with envy seeing the prosperity of the Pandava’s, and he hatched by Sakuni’s instigation an evil scheme of cheating the Pandava’s of all their wealth and indeed their whole kingdom by a rigged gambling match.
Bhisma was such a powerful ruler that in a fair fight none of the world’s ksatriyas could combat him, but circumstances conspired in such a way that he had to be present and be passive in the assembly where the Pandava’s were dispossessed of everything and their caste wife Draupdi was horribly dishonored. When the gambling match was about to take place Bhisma strongly opposed it as did Vidura, but Duryodhana was adamant and Dhritarastra was weak minded. Dritarastra said, “It is just a friendly match.” But it was not friendly because Sakuni plundered away all the wealth of the Pandava’s, and even instigated them to be bet themselves and bet Draupadi also. Bhisma could have risen in force and opposed what had happened, but he was orchestrated by the Lord in such a way as to demonstrate the glorious truth.
What is the glorious truth? Externally when Draupadi begged to the Kuru assembly to offer her justice, she raised the question, “If Yudhisthir had gambled himself already then does he have the right to gamble me? How could he have possibly gambled me?” When this question was raised nobody answered. So, Bhisma forced to answer and Bhisma said, “Actually the laws of morality are very difficult to ascertain and a wife is always considered to be under the care and the custody of her husband. At the same time if a person has lost oneself, then one does not possess anything. Given both these rules my mind is confused and I cannot tell what is the right.”
Bhisma is dharmajna and he pacifies Yudhisthir in a situation in which nobody else was able to pacify after the huge bloodshed that happened in the Kuruksetra war. He certainly knows dharma but in this particular situation he was caught up in an ethical crisis by the arrangement of the Lord and he couldn’t understand. This is an example by the Lord’s arrangement an example of Niyamagraha. Niyamagraha mean sticking to the letter of rule without understanding the principle of the rule. One rule is that the wife is always under the custody of the husband; the other rule is that, a person who has lost himself cannot possess anything else. Either way, whatever be the right rule the far higher principle is that one should not be dishonored in the public assembly.
It was arranged by the Lord that Bhisma act in a passive way over there so that far more important truth could be demonstrated. The truth was that, in this world we may have many protectors and yet such crisis can come when we will have no protector except the supreme protector, who is Krishna. Draupadi had her five powerful husbands and she had such elders like Bhisma, but still nobody could help her at that time when she was being dishonored, and finally it was Krishna who helped her.
Later on also when the Pandava’s were exiled Bhisma realized that this conflict has gone too far and now there is going to be a war. He tried again and again to counsel Duryodhana, but Duryodhana was beyond listening. When Duryodhana went to Kamyaka to flaunt his wealth but returned, instead of being completely dishonored again Bhisma tried to give him good advice by telling him, “Settle for peace with the Pandavas. If you give them their kingdom back you can have peace.” Duyodhana was not ready to listen at all and said, “No way am I going to give the kingdom to them.” Bhisma was listening to him and
Duryodhana was not even paying attention. Bhisma realized that the destruction of the dynasty was up, and as the twelve years got over, and then for one year the Pandava’s vanished to incognito exile and stayed in the Virata’s kingdom, the Kuru’s got the suspicion that the Pandava’s might be there because Kichaka had been killed when very few people we capable of killing Kichaka. So, the Kaurava’s decided to attack Virat and they send Susarma, one of their allies to attack from the other side. And Virat along with his army went to that side to protect, and from the other side the whole Kuru army along with their great generals attacked. Then Bhumanjaya who was the acting head of state at that time came along with Arjuna who had taken the garb of a eunuch named Brihanalla; and Arjuna became a warrior and he fought.
At that time when the army was about to have a confrontation when the one year of incognito exile was over, Arjuna made his appearance. He shed off the appearance of an eunuch and took up the weapon and started shooting, and the first thing that he did was, he shot arrows at the feet of Bhisma, not at the body of Bhisma. He also shot arrows at the feet of Drona and Kripa offering them obeisance’s and seeking their blessings. When he blew his conch shell, at that time he twanged his bow and Bhisma’s heart leapt with joy that the Padavas were well and his beloved Partha was there, but how unfair and cruel was destiny that after thirteen long years of separation he could not embrace the Pandava’s but he had fight with arrows. At that time Duryodhana thought that the Pandava’s have been detected before the one year was over, and that is why they had to go back into exile again. But Bhisma gave systematic calculations telling how the one year had already got over, and he knew that Arjuna would not have made his appearance if the one year had not got over. The timing had been perfect and precise. But there are calculations that can be made according to the different calendars like the lunar calendar or solar calendar. That’s why sometimes the same festival is celebrated in two different days. Like Janmasthami is celebrated in one day by one group of people and on another day by another group of people. That is because they follow different calendar conventions. So, Duryodhana tried to use the calendar conflict to force the Pandava’s into exile again, and try to rationalize and say that the Pandavas have not completed one year. But Bhisma could take in no more. He said, “Enough injustice has happened and actually the Pandavas have fairly spend one year in the forest and now they have appeared back.” That time was the first time when Bhisma saw the Pandavas after thirteen years but they had a fight. But Arjuna overcame everyone even including Bhisma. He used celestial weapons and Bhisma fought fiercely. Bhisma was proud to see the prowess of Arjuna but still because he was a ksatriya he fought to his full prowess. Arjuna also fought to his full prowess and Arjuna overpowered Bhisma. Then Arjuna departed with the wealth that had been stolen and the Kaurava’s had to go back. Bhisma left that scene with mixed feelings. He was happy to know that the Pandava’s were safe and that they had survived the forest exile as well as the incognito period, but he was sad that there seemed to be no chance of cessation of hostilities, and when the war eventually came about, Bhisma because of his word of honor to side by the Kuru ruling head had to side with the Duryodhana and Dhritarastra.
At an external level it may seem that Bhisma fought because he was bound by wealth. He said, “Actually they have provided and maintained me. Therefore I have to fight for them.” That is a very superficial reason because actually he was older to them. In fact he was like a father figure to even Dhritarastra and a grandfather to a generation of the Pandava’s and Kaurava’s. Actually he fought on the side of the Kaurava’s because Krishna wanted him to. Krishna inspired him from within his heart to make that
choice. Why? Because by fighting on the side of the Kaurava’s Krishna wanted him to demonstrate another extraordinary devotional principle: no matter how powerful, learned and virtuous a person may be, but if that person goes against the will of God, that person will perish.
Bhisma as far as martial skills are concerned had no equal. He had defeated Parsuram who had defeated all the ksatriya warriors twenty one times. As far as scriptural knowledge was concerned he had no equal. He was trained by Markendya, Bhrihaspati, Sukracharya and by many great sages, and he had decades and decades of experience in administration and diplomacy, but in spite of all this when he sided with the Kauravas he failed. Actually he knew that maybe he would be misunderstood because he chose to fight on the side of evil, but he was ready to do that because he knew that that was the will of the Lord, and that will of the Lord he was ready to fulfill, even if that meant sacrificing his reputation.
How Bhisma did an extraordinary service to the Lord by demonstrating the sublime and inconceivable beauty of Virya rasa on the battlefield of Kurukshetra is demonstrated in the picture behind.
Thank you very much.