Mahabharata Characters 08 – Bhishma 07 – Transcendental devotion amidst violent confrontation
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 Mahabharat character series. We are discussing about Bhisma and we are right in the middle of the Mahabharat war. We discussed how at the end of the fourth day Bhisma spoke the glories of Krishna to Duryodhana and how Duryodhana had temporary second thoughts based on contemplating the position of Krishna, but again he decided to continue with his hostilities, and then the war continued in earnest. On the eight day again the fortunes of the war went up and down. Sometimes the Pandavas got the upper hand and sometimes the Kauravas got the upper hand. Bhisma still continued his formidable commandership where he was slowly grinding the Pandava forces. On the eight day again there was a fierce fight between Bhima and Duryodhana, and actually Ghatotkacha also came to assist and several warriors came to assist Bhima on the other side. Again Bhima fought so furiously that Duryodhana was wounded. Actually Duryodhana was wounded by Ghatotkacha also first and Duryodhana was wounded by Bhima also when he later had a fight, and eventually Bhima killed again several of the brothers of Duryodhana right before his eyes, and Duryodhana became filled with anger and frustration; anger at the defeat and frustration at the inability to counter the result; and at the end of the war being scorched by the enemy, burning with the wounds and burning with anger from within he went to his old friends, and Karna who had been in the sidelines welcomed Duryodhana. He said, “Oh friend, how do you fare in your fortunes. I hope you are attaining victory.” Duyodhana shook his head in exasperation and misery. He said, “Our forces are being overcome. Although Bhisma is our commandership, but still we are slowly being overcome; today I also got wounded.
Duryodhana felt humiliated to speak about how he had been again vested by Bhima. Karna immediately spoke. He said, “Just let me come in and I will defeat and kill the Pandavas.” We will discuss later how Karna had given a vow to Kunti that he would not kill the other Pandava’s except Arjuna, but still he just wanted to please Duryodhana. He said, “I will kill all the Pandavas. Just tell Bhisma to step down. Then I will come and I will overcome the Pandavas.” Duryodhana became grave. He said, “I will talk with the grandsire.” And then he went to Bhisma; and Bhisma saw the wounds on Duryodahana. He immediately used mantras and herbs and he started tending to his wounds, and as he was doing this Duryodhana spoke words which wounded Bhisma far more than the wounds that he had got on that day during the war.
Bhisma was serving him in the warfield and was serving him right now by tending to his
wounds, but he spoke words that pierced like daggers into Bhisma’s body. He said, “O grandsire, I cannot believe that while you are there as our commander the Pandavas can overcome our forces.” He paused and spoke carefully choosing his words knowing that what he was going to speak was going to cause great hurt to Bhisma, but he wanted to insight him somehow or other. He said, “If you are partial to the Pandava’s and because of that you are not fighting wholeheartedly, then you should have told me before. Then I would not have entrusted you as the commandership of my army. I was a fool that entrusting you as my commander I have practically ensured that my army would be killed by the Pandavas because you will not counter them wholeheartedly.” This charge that Bhisma was partial and was not fighting wholeheartedly stung because first of all Bhisma did not want to fight on behalf of this insolent prince, but more than that it stung because against the ksatriya honor he was fighting wholeheartedly; and to tell a ksatriya that you are not fighting wholeheartedly is like in sports sometimes you have match fixing. One team wants to win a match or in one team some players are paid so that they underperform on certain days so that the opponent team wins. So, Duryodhana was charging Bhisma similarly; it was a slur on his character and he just couldn’t tolerate it. And as he couldn’t tolerate it. Bhisma said, “Oh prince, why are you piercing me with words like this? Can’t you see that I as well as all the warriors are exerting ourselves fully to the best of our capacity to serve your interests, we are all ready to lay down our lives for you; what more do you think that son of a suta can do?” Bhisma turned away trying to control his anger, but still the words of Duryodhana stung in his heart and he said, “As per my vow I have been grinding the Pandava forces relentlessly, but listen as I take a vow for your sake tomorrow.” He sat down in meditation. Before that he took out five frightening looking fierce arrows and placed them on a cloth in front of him, looked at them, closed his eyes and went into meditation, and he chanted some sacred mantras to infuse them with great power, and when he opened his eyes he said, “I have invested all my life’s mystic power in these arrows, and this five arrows will kill the five Pandava’s.”
Actually at the start of the war Bhisma had said that he would fight but he would not kill the Pandava’s, because he told Duryodhana, “They are like you to me. I am fighting on your side but they are also my grandsons. I cannot kill them.” But now these words incited him and he said, “I will kill the five Pandavas tomorrow with these five arrows.” Duryodhana’s heart fell with joy at the thought, “Tomorrow the war will end. If the grandsire takes a vow he will keep it.” He knew how strong Bhisma was in keeping his word.” His vow of lifelong celibacy was itself an example of his strong vows. So, he felt delighted and he told, “Wonderful!” and he thought about it. He said, “Please give me the arrows. I will keep them very safely with me and I will give you tomorrow.” He thought that nothing should go wrong. He thought, “Tomorrow the war would be over;
tomorrow the kingdom will be mine. So, I will keep the arrows.” He ensured that nobody would come to know about the arrows so that no spies would come about and would convey the message and nothing could be done and no conspiracy could be hatched to take the arrows away. But although he did this there is one person who knows everything without needing a spy, and that is Krishna. Krishna told Arjuna, “You go and get those arrows.”
Long ago Arjuna had helped Duryodhana where Duryodhana had been overcome by the Gandarvas, and that time Duryodhana had said, “I will do some favor for you in the future because you have done this favor for me.” So, Krishna told Arjuna to go and ask for these five arrows, and Arjuna accordingly went and asked for the five arrows, and Duryodhana being bound by the word of his honor gave the arrows and he told him, “Just tell me Arjuna how did you know about these arrows.” Arjuna smiled and said, “Krishna told me.” And Duryodhana punched his fist on his palm, “Krishna, Krishna, how did he come to know. It seems that he maybe God.” But his anger was so great that he said, “We have to keep fighting.” And then the next morning when they got ready for the war and then Bhisma asked Duryodhana for the arrows. Duryodhana became red faced and he told what had happened, and Bhisma smiled, and Bhisma knew that Krishna would surely do something to protect his devotees. In fact when Bhisma took that vow also he invested those arrows with that tremendous power. At that time also he had no intention of actually killing the Pandava’s, and he did that so that Krishna would do something wonderful by which he would demonstrate how he protects his devotees; that was the heart of Bhisma and he could see what was going on in Duryodhana’s head. Duryodhana’s fertile head was coming up with the idea, “Even if those five arrows are gone you can invest similar other five arrows with the same power and you can carry out your vow of killing the Pandava’.” Bhisma intuiting this said, “I had invested almost all of my life’s power in those arrows and I cannot do that again.”
Actually when a person practices dharma; practicing any kind of dharma involves some amount of austerity, and when a person does austerity that practice of austerity gives great power to a person, and that power enables a person to do extraordinary things; things which other people can’t do. That is called as tapobal. Now we can understand this at a simpler level. If a person does a lot of exercise, then by that exercise the person will develop strong muscles. That is at one level of discipline and austerity. That leads to the development of certain powers. At a deeper level when a person does austerity; austerity especially in the adherence of dharma is the means by which one connects with the higher powers of the universe, and the higher powers are available to those who do austerity and practice dharma. Just like in science there are mechanisms by which some other powers which are not accessible to normal people are tapped say through technology. We have hydro electric power, we have nuclear power, we have
thermal power. These are means by which certain powers can be tapped.
Just as there are higher powers in the cosmos which needs specialized mechanisms to tap; presently our civilization uses technology to tap these powers. There is another type of technology which involves the development of individual powers through the performance of austerity and through the adherence to dharma.
Bhisma because he had performed dharma diligently and because he had been a celibate throughout his life had acquired a lot of tapobala, and that’s how he had invested that in the arrows. He said, “I cannot do it again now. But still I will do my very best and by the end of today Arjuna will be killed unless Krishna does something to intervene and protect. Because Krishna has decided not to raise weapons; so, your purpose will be served. Again Duryodhana felt relieved and almost delighted. Arjuna was the most formidable warrior on the side of the Pandavas. If he could be killed the war would be almost as if won. If the others can be conquered by others, I will overcome Bhima. Again the war started in dead earnest, and on that day Bhisma fought so furiously like he had never fought before, and he fought in such a way that nobody could stand before him. Going before him was like going before the jaws of death, and the Pandava soldiers just broke in fear and fled. At that time Krishna told Arjuna, “You have to fight with Bhisma. You had given your word at the start of the war that you will put aside affection towards Bhisma and fight him wholeheartedly. Why have you put aside that? Now fight. Arjuna said, “Fie upon the duty of a ksatriya that it makes the ksatriya fight against those who he should be bowing down to. Yes, it is my duty and I will fight.” And then Krishna took the chariot towards Bhisma and Arjuna and Bhisma fought, and fought fiercely. But Arjuna could not put his heart into the fight but he fought and fought, but Bhisma fought so ferociously; now Bhisma fought ferociously not because he was angry. Yes, Duryodhana’s word had hurt him, had angered him, but that was not the primary motive. Actually he wanted in his heart to see Krishna perform some wonderful pastime, to see how Krishna will demonstrate the truth that he protects his devotees, kauteya pratijanihi na me bhakti pranaschati. He declares that in the Bhagavad-gita, and that is an eternal principle that the Lord always protects those who are devoted to him. How he will protect, that is what he wanted to see, and Arjuna tried to counter half-heartedly; now Arjuna even at his best would not have found it easy to overpower Bhisma, but when Arjuna was fighting half-heartedly, there was no chance of him ever being able to overpower Bhisma, and Bhisma even while fighting with Arjuna who was shooting arrows so fiercely that he was devastating and destroying the troops around Arjuna also, and Krishna became grave. He said, “The way Bhisma was fighting the war would end that day itself.” Arjuna was already wounded with arrows in his body although he had a very strong armor; but still that armor could not withstand weapons for all time; it will also be eventually penetrated. He said, the way Bhisma is going, all
our armies will be destroyed today; the way the war is going Arjuna himself will be killed soon. I cannot allow that and I have to take things in my own hands. I will have to protect Arjuna. So, Krishna was having the chariot reigns in one hand, the weapon in the other hand and suddenly he flung both of them and he leapt off the chariot and he saw that there is a wheel, and he took that wheel and he just charged towards Bhisma and started running and running towards Bhisma, and as he was running in this way everybody was stunned to see this. Bhisma seeing that Krishna who had taken a vow not to lift up his weapon, that Krishna had suddenly lifted up weapon to protect his devotees, had come to the cause of protecting his devotees. He was amazed, his heart was flooded with joy and he put aside his bow and he says, “Come O Keshava, death at your hands would be the perfection of my life.” So, Bhisma’s attitude was devotional seeing the Lord coming, but as we see over here Krishna is charging towards Bhisma and actually when the mace fight happens the two warriors are close to each other, but when the fight happens with bow and arrows they are at a significant distance from each other. So, Bhisma and Arjuna were at quite a distance from each other; Krishna jumped off the chariot, picked up the wheel and started charging towards, and this vision of Krishna charging towards him became etched permanently in the heart of Bhisma and he recollects this later when he about to depart. He says, “Just as a lion comes to kill an elephant Krishna charged towards me. His upper cloth flew away and Krishna looked magnificent holding up the chakra. Now there were many warriors who had died and there were many weapons over there. Krishna just picked up the chakra because the chakra is similar to his sudarshan chakra. Now Krishna could have called his sudarshana chakra, but he was so frantic with anxiety that he just didn’t think about it; he just took the chakra and charged. He would induce his entire bodily prowess in that chakra and throw it. Now when earlier Krishna used his Sudarshana chakra; say for example he decided to kill Sisupal; at that time he did not charge towards Sisupal, he just discharged the Sudarsana chakra and it just cut off the head of Sisupal. Here Krishna could have done the same thing; from that distance he could have hurled the chakra with his entire formidable prowess, but he charged because Krishna was so filled with anxiety for Arjuna’s protection that he thought that he couldn’t take any chance.
Sometimes when one person has to shoot another person, then if they are shooting from a distance, then there might be a chance that they may miss the target. The best idea is to go close and shoot point blank. There is no chance of missing; the person is right in front. Like that Krishna charged across to throw the wheel point blank and to ensure that there will be no missing and Bhisma will be killed and his devotee Arjuna would be protected. So, as Krishna was charging along like this, Arjuna seeing this became mortified. He said, “No, how can Krishna break his word like this. I am to blame
for this. He leapt off the chariot and he started running after Krishna and saying, “Krishna please don’t use your weapon, please don’t give up your word for our sake. I promise you that I will fight wholeheartedly, I will kill Bhisma. Please don’t break your word. You will be disgraced in the whole world. Please don’t do this for my sake.” Arjuna was running towards Krishna calling out to him, but Krishna was so blinded and deafened by anxiety, concern and love for his devotee that Krishna did not hear anything, and finally Arjuna ran and leapt through the air, and he just fell at the feet of Krishna and he caught him by his thigh and tried to hold him back, but Krishna was filled with so much anxiety that Krishna still kept running, and although Arjuna was there holding him back, but he dragged Arjuna across the battlefield for a considerable distance and Arjuna was calling out to Krishna to stop but Krishna was not ready to listen. Finally, Arjuna whose feet were being dragged along the ground lifted his powerful feet high up and banged them on the ground. As he banged them on the ground holes were being created, and because he was being dragged along almost something like trenches were being created, but as his legs went inside the ground the legs caught a foothold, and with the strength of his hands which were pulling on to Krishna’s legs and with the strength of his legs which were in the ground Arjuna finally brought Krishna to a stop; and Arjuna called out to Krishna, “Please stop!” As Krishna was charging towards Arjuna all the time, his attention was completely focused on Bhisma and he told Bhisma, “You are the cause of this whole war and the destruction. It is the duty of the minister to give good counsel to the king, and if the king goes on an evil track, then the minister must take the responsibility to bring the king on the right track. Because you failed in your duty that is why you deserve to die.” Krishna was speaking this as he was charging across and Arjuna was trying to stop him, and Bhisma putting aside his weapons says, “O Kesava! What you say is always right. I tried my best to give good counsel to Dhritarastra but he was not ready to listen. What could I do? I failed in my duty as a minister and I am ready to face the consequences; death at your hands will be perfection for me. And as he was charging towards Krishna in this way Arjuna pulled him down and finally stopped him, and then Arjuna said, “Krishna please stop. I will fight and kill Bhisma. You don’t have to break your vow of not lifting weapons.” Hearing this Krishna calmed down, and then Krishna and Arjuna turned around and walked back. This happened towards the end of the day; the sun was almost setting and Bhisma who had put aside his weapon looked around as if coming out of a trance and he signaled to his warriors to cease the hostilities for the day. Those times the wars would be fought from morning to the evening, and then the war would stop.
The war stopped and as everyone went back; everybody was thinking of this most dramatic incident that had happened on that day; how Krishna had come to the help of
Arjuna by lifting up the wheel and how he had charged towards Bhisma. For Bhisma it was the highest point of his life; the most cherished vision of his life was going to stay forever in his heart. Bhisma actually served Krishna in Virya rasa. In the spiritual world the specialty is in the variety and the sweetness of the intensity.
The war stopped and when everyone went back, everybody was thinking of this most dramatic incident that had happened on that day; how Krishna had come to the help of Arjuna by lifting up Sudarshana chakra and how he had charged towards Bhisma. For Bhisma it was the highest point of his life. The most cherished vision of his life was going to stay forever in his heart.
Bhisma actually served Krishna in Virya Rasa. In the spiritual world the specialty is the variety and the sweetness of the intensity of the emotions with which the devotees and the Lord reciprocate. There are five primary rasas; these are related with the five primary ways in which we have relationships in this world also. Actually whatever relationship we see in this world, they are like the reflections or Xerox copies of what is originally there in the spiritual world. There is shanta rasa where there is passive admiration where one thinks that the Lord is great; like people have fans. From the distance they feel how great the player is, how great this performer is; that is santa rasa. Then there is dasya rasa where one actively serves the Lord and does something for him. For example, Hanuman is in dasya rasa. Then there is sakhya rasa or friendship. Arjuna is in sakhya rasa. Eternally Arjuna serves Krishna as his friend. There are sages who are in santa rasa, there is Citrak Raktak; Krishna’s assistants who are there in dasya rasa to serve Krishna, and there are trees in the spiritual world and there are sages who passively meditate on the supreme Lord; they are considered to be in the santa rasa. Then there is vatsalya or parental mode where some devotees serve the Lord as parents. There is Yasoda Mai, there is Nanda Maharaja; and then there is Madhurya rasa where the devotees serve the Lord as his consort; there is Radharani, there is Sita Devi, Laxmi Devi; these are the five primary ways in which there are relationships, but along with these five modes of relationships there are seven other emotions which add flavor to these relationships, and one of them is virya or chivalry.
Virya rasa means, sometimes when the Lord wants to fight – in all these relationships the devotees love the Lord; normally they will not want to fight with him, but when the Lord want to fight, then sometimes some devotee takes up that role. When Krishna wants to fight in the spiritual world, then some of the gopa’s wrestle with him; Sridama wrestles with him and sometimes Krishna lets himself gets defeated. Why does he let himself get defeated? Just to enhance the sweetness of the relationship, just to intensify the flavor of that relationship, and in this way the devotees relish greater and greater joy, and that is the sweetness of bhakti. This is virya rasa.
In the book called Gopal Champu which is book about Krishna lila described by Jiva Goswami, he expands using various other scriptures the pastimes about Krishna that is described in the tenth canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam, and he says that the same Krishna in the assembly of Kamsa who easily defeated all the world champion wrestlers like Mustika and Canura and all these other wrestlers, in the same arena after all the wresters were defeated Krishna called his gopal friends to fight with him, and as they were fighting – these gopa friends were just simple cowherd boys; they defeated Krishna and Kamsa was completed bewildered unable to understand what is happening. He said, “None of my wrestlers could defeat, but they defeated Krishna, these cowherd boys are defeating Krishna, what is happening? This is actually Krishna enjoying Virya rasa. He lets himself be defeated also. The spiritual world is not a place where God always delights in boasting or displaying his Godhood; “I am god, bow down to me.” God often subordinates and conceals his Godhood so that love can reign supreme, so that the sweetness of love can manifest more and more, and whatever is appropriate for the enhancement of this reciprocation of love, that emotion and appropriate mood and everything are required for that, is manifested.
Spiritual world is a world of love. That means that whatever is required for the intensification of that love is manifested over there. In that wonderful spiritual world and in these spiritual relationships, one of the ways is virya rasa.
Krishna’s body is sat-cit-ananda. It is spiritual; it has nothing to do with material things. So, Krishna’s body doesn’t have to give out material stuff like our body gives out, and it is not made of flesh and bones, but still when there is this lila there to be performed, at that time Krishna lets his body also give out blood. Because when Bhisma was shooting arrows Bhisma describes how Krishna when he was a charioteer of Arjuna how by his arrows how Krishna had become pierced. His forehead was adorned by blood; normally when we see blood on somebody’s body we say, “Hey what happened?” We want to treat it, we want to apply some ointment and remove that blood. We won’t think that the blood is beautifying the body; and then he says, there was the dust of the clouds which had been raised by the hooves of the horses; Krishna was very close to the horses, and anyway there are so many horses, and other animals were also there, and they were raising up dust and the dust had also decorated Krishna’s body. Normally dust is not considered a decoration, but the dust was a decoration here. Then blood was a decoration and sweat was also there. Normally this three make a person not look attractive, but in Krishna’s case all of them made him look attractive. Why? Because they enhanced his beauty. How did they enhance? Because in virya rasa the devotee and the Lord reciprocate the emotion of fighting with each other. So, although Krishna was not actively fighting but Krishna was having Bhisma playing the role of an antagonist, of an opponent who fought against him and his devotees. Krishna had
chosen a passive role; an advisory role over there. Not exactly a passive role; passive from the fighting point of view, but still he was active in giving counsel; and here he was enjoying Virya rasa. So, he enjoys when the devotee hits him also. Just like when a child and a father are fighting, the child just punches the father. The child’s blows are actually harmless, but the father gets a joy. The child may punch the father and the father says, “I am defeated.” And the child starts jumping in joy. There is a reciprocation of love that happens over there. So, for the sake of reciprocating love the Lord and the devotee take different moods, and here Krishna took the mood of a warrior, Bhisma has already taken the mood of a warrior; and no devotee delights in hurting the Lord. All the devotees want to serve the Lord, but service can happen in various ways, and in some cases the devotee may serve the Lord by fighting against the Lord; that is virya rasa. And that is why Bhisma, he is cherishing that image as one of the hearts fondest images when he is about to depart from the world, and what happened on this day was very special.
It is not just the idea of two warriors fighting, or one warrior giving up a word of honor because of expediency. No, it is the highest level of love that is being demonstrated by this pastimes; that the Lord who becomes a servant of his devotee by becoming a charioteer, the Lord who sacrifices his own word of honor so that he can protect the life of his devotee; and the Lord who delights in reciprocating variety of emotions and including the emotion of having a devotee serve him in an antagonist role. All these extraordinary facets of divinity are revealed in this pastime, and these particular pastimes are among the most cherished pastimes in the Mahabharata in terms of demonstrating the beauty of the conception of God and the beauty of the nature of the pastimes between the Lord and his devotees.
Normally a devotee would like to garland the Lord and that’s how the devotee honors the Lord, but the essential principle of service is doing whatever will please the Lord. When Bhisma was shooting arrows it was his way of doing service, and from Krishna’s point of view although the arrows were thudding in his body also, but still he felt those arrows to be non-different from garlands being offered to him, flowers being showered on him because he saw beyond the immediate circumstances of two warriors fighting with each other; he saw it was his devotee reciprocating love with him, and that’s how Bhisma saw and that’s how he describes in this prayers.
Great Vaisnava acharya and great scholar Viswanatha Saraswati Thakura describes and in general this is the way we understand that when two people are in love; in the heat of passion sometimes by loving each other they may bite each other. Normally if one person bites another it would be considered an act of savagery, but love bites are an expression of beauty. Of course the relationship between the Lord and the devotees
are not at all material or self-centered or body based; it is transcendental, it is pure and it is selfless. At the same time we get some understanding of that relationship; especially its intensity; not exactly its nature, but its intensity we can understand by comparing with the relationship in this world.
The wounds that adorn Krishna’s body, they are like a love bite. So, love can take many forms. Love between the Lord and the devotees is not just a devotee going to the temple folding hands or a worshipper going to a mosque or a church or a synagogue doing some worship. The Vedic tradition reveals how God is such an extraordinary person and how love to him can be offered in so many different ways, and one of the ways is by offering him metaphorical love bites by shooting arrows at him, and that is how this is a beautify vision of love of a loving God, and this vision of a loving God that can charm our heart is the ultimate revelation of the Mahabharat; Bhagavad-gita’s wisdom points towards this loving God, and Prabhupada also points towards this loving God, and this vision is more developed in the Srimad Bhagavatam, and it is further developed in the commentaries of Srimad Bhagavatam and in the Bhakti traditions which explain the secrets of the Srimad Bhagavatam by further revelations through the saints, and this is treasure that the Mahabharat ultimately offers us. What happened on the tenth day of the Mahabharat war we will discuss in our next class.