Why did the virtuous Bhishma fight on the side of the vicious Kauravas?

by Chaitanya CharanJuly 28, 2014

Transcription by– Keshavgopal Das & Ambuj Gupta

Question: If morality is contextual not categorical then why did Bhishma fight on side of the Kauravas? What was his role?

Answer: Mahabharata is understood at two different levels. One is the karma kanda level and other is the pure devotional level. karma kanda level means people do things so that they can rise to heavens and pure devotional level means that they do something just to please Krishna. So from the karma kanda perspective, Bhishma did commit mistakes- Bhishma not strongly opposing the disrobing of Draupadi, Bhishma’s consent was to fight on the side of the kauravas. These were mistakes.

It was basically a problem of niyamaagrah. Niyamaagrah means sticking to the letter of the law without understanding the spirit of the law. Bhishma had taken a vow that till the end of my life I will protect the ruling kuru king. Shantanu was his father and to please his father and in the whole circumstance he had taken that vow. I will not become the king but I will dedicate my life to protecting the ruling kuru king. At that time he would never conceive that a vicious person like Duryodhana will become the king in the future. So he accepted the morality to categorical and that’s why on the ninth day when Bhishma has taken a vow that either I will kill Arjuna or I will make Krishna to take weapons. So at that time Krishna picks up a chariot wheel and He charges towards Bhishma and what does He say- you are the root of the evil that has caused this war. It is the duty of the minister to stop the king when the king goes on a wrong track and because you did not stop Dhritrashtra therefore you are the cause of the destruction of the whole dynasty. Therefore I will destroy you. He was furious and He charges towards Bhishma. Bhishma says Krishna charging like that and Bhishma puts aside his bow. He says come O Lord. Dying with Your hand is the perfection of my life. Then he says I tried my best to give counsel to Dhritrashtra. He did not hear. I was helpless.

Here Krishna did point out that what Bhishma did was wrong. Krishna says that if a minister cannot pursuade the king then minister should abandon the king. What happened is he tried to pursuade Dhritrashtra but he could not abandon him because of his vow. So from this point of view of Bhishmna did make a mistake of considering morality to be categorical and taking to the side of the Kauravas but then from the pure devotional perspective we understand that it was Krishna’s will that Bhishma fight against the Pandavas by which Krishna demonstrates the truth that no matter how great the person may be, if that person goes against God and against those who are with God, then that person will be destroyed. Despite having Bhishma on their side the Kauravas lost and Bhishma accepted that service from Krishna. You will be misunderstood for all of eternity, why did he choose the side of vice. But he chose it because that’s what Krishna wanted him to do and he see that Krishna rewarded him. In the context of the war Krishna was angry with Bhishma but then later on when Bhishma was about to depart from the world Krishna personally came there. Krishna Himself came to give darshan and when He blessed him he could depart very peacefully and before that also Krishna brought Yudhisthira and Pandavas and they heard instructions from Bhishma. That means it was a mistake on the part of Bhishma at one level but Krishna was pleased because Bhishma had done what Krishna wanted him to do.

There is categorical contextual morality but there is also material morality and spiritual morality. Spiritual morality means one does whatever it takes to please Krishna even if it is considered immoral from material perspective. For the gopis to leave their families at the middle of the night goes to Krishna is considered immoral for a woman, but because that was Krishna wanted to do so that was supreme morality. It’s called trans-moral. It’s not immoral. Below moral is immoral. But above moral is trans-moral. That means that is done for pleasure of Krishna. So Bhishma’s action of fighting from side of the Kauravas was trans-moral. Thank you.

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Chaitanya Charan

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