narayanam namaskritya naram chaiva narottamam /
devim sarasvatim vyasam tato jaya udirayet //
1. Dharma is Supreme
Writing about the foundations of Indian culture which were laid thousands of years ago and recorded in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Itihasas and the Puranas, Sri Aurobindo said:
“The Mahabharata is the creation and expression not of a single individual mind, but of the mind of a nation; it is the poem of itself written by a whole people. It would be vain to apply to it the canons of a poetical art applicable to an epic poem with a smaller and more restricted purpose, but still a great and quite conscious art has been expended both on its detail and its total structure. The whole poem has been built like a vast national temple unrolling slowly its immense and complex idea from chamber to chamber, crowded with significant groups and sculptures and inscriptions, the grouped figures carved in divine or semi-divine proportions, a humanity aggrandized and half uplifted to super-humanity and yet always true to the human motive and idea and feeling, the strain of the real constantly raised by the tones of the ideal, the life of this world amply portrayed but subjected to the conscious influence and presence of the powers of the worlds behind it, and the whole unified by the long embodied procession of a consistent idea worked out in the wide steps of the poetic story.” 1
Such a compendium is not easily summarized. The main narrative, also known as Jaya, concerns the history which led to the fratricidal conflict on the field of Kurukshetra. But there are innumerable branch-stories, ethical teachings, moral perspectives apart from the fact that we find ourselves in an atmosphere that is totally different from the world view we have come to possess today. Whatever be the reality, we do affirm at least verbally, the need for democratic governance, gender-equality and the rest. In the Mahabharata-world Dharma is invoked for almost everything. It was dharma to wage war and win, but dharma also insisted on the use of fair means in war; it was dharma to honour and cherish women but the same dharma is invoked to consider her as a domestic chattel that can be bartered away.
After inditing the tremendous epic, which had used a massive spread of events through eighteen parvas, Rishi Veda Vyasa wonders whether the human being is capable of learning lessons from history. And yet, the wise among the earth-born must not stop repeating what is dharmic and chide what is not conducive to dharma. His conclusion is revered as ‘Bharata Savitri’:
Thousands of mothers and fathers, and hundreds of sons and wives arise in the world and depart from it. Others will (arise and) similarly depart. There are thousands of occasions for joy and hundreds of occasions for fear. These affect only him that is ignorant but never him that is wise. With uplifted arms I am crying aloud but nobody hears me. From Righteousness is Wealth as also Pleasure. Why should not Righteousness, therefore, be courted? For the sake neither of pleasure, nor of fear, nor of cupidity should anyone cast off Righteousness. Righteousness is eternal. Pleasure and Pain are not eternal. Jiva is eternal. The cause, however, of Jiva's being invested with a body is not so.”2
One can understand the anguish of Vyasa. Also, understand the need to cry out again, with uplifted arms, that only from Dharma can one gain real pleasure and prosperity, not otherwise. The grand cast of characters from the epic are each of them a teacher to all the future generations. Meanwhile, here and now, we have to restate the imperatives of Dharma through the humans, birds and animals found in the Mahabharata. This is no imagined tale. It is ‘itihasa’, history; this is how it happened. Vyasa was no armchair philosopher. He took an active part in the critical times that caused immense destruction in a cataclysmic internecine struggle; one who had seen wrong action, and had sought to uphold the right action; one who was close to actuality in the experience of day-to-day life. This deep involvement saw to it that Vyasa would be no dreamer of impossible utopias. Hence, too, his conclusions, with suitable modifications, are capable of direct application to a number of our own conditions today. A century ago, Sri Aurobindo had noted the social relevance of the Mahabharata for our own times. The characters of the epic, then, stand before us either as shining examples or as dire warnings:“His very subject is one ofpractical ethics, the establishment of a Dharmarajya, an empire of the just, by which is meant no millennium of the saints, but the practical ideal of government with righteousness, purity and unselfish toil for the common good as its saving principles…Vyasa’s ethics like everything else in him takes a double stand on intellectual scrutiny and acceptance and on personal strength of character; his characters having once adopted by intellectual choice and in harmony with their temperaments a given line of conduct, throw the whole heroic force of their nature into its pursuit. He is therefore pre-eminently a poet of action.”3
Not a purveyor of distant possibilities but a recorder of current reality! We are in this world, and an ascetic denial is not going to help us or the world. But by living boldly and wisely adhering to Dharma, we can yet find the peace that is the reward of the contemplative man. This is no doubt the message of the Gita that is revealed in the Bhishma Parva. But, as Sri Aurobindo points out, even earlier, in the Udyoga Parva, Krishna imparts the same teaching to the assembled warriors of the Pandava group. Sanjaya comes to Upaplavya on behalf of Dhritarashtra and Bhishma to deliver a message of peace to the Pandavas.Yudhistira, however, says that Krishna alone can speak with total knowledge about the nuances of action and renunciation, of Dharma. Krishna indicates his willingness to be an ambassador of peace to the Kuru Court but speaks out against renunciation. The world revolves on action. Even the unwinking gods– Vayu, Surya, Chandra, Agni, Bhumi, the river goddesses and a host of other divinities– engage themselves in action to attain the highest:
“Unsleeping Bala-slaying Indra
sends rain on the earth
and her cardinal directions;
He does without sleep
by the strength he attained
through intense brahmacharya.
Sakra Indra attained
lordship through karma,
with dharma and truth,
restraint and endurance,
fairness and friendship.” 4
Action, then, but without attachment. Krishna details the ways of a Kshatriya who follows his dharma and delivers the stern admonition:
“Killing a robber is a virtuous act.
The Kauravas are robbers.
They are clever in adharma,
and foolish in dharma.
And this is not good, Sanjaya.
Dhritarashtra and his sons
the Pandavas’ rights,
And violated the age-old
dharma of rajas –
and the Kauravas applauded!” 5
Thus, in a swift movement, by unveiling the core-message of the Mahabharata, Sri Aurobindo proved that it was a total mistake to think of the Indians as given solely to contemplation, a myth which is often used to explain away the poverty and non-development which keeps India down. The nation has always believed in dharmic righteousness, which is the subject of the Mahabharata. Which is why the Indians have never tired of retelling the epic tale in various ways. Sublime epic poetry or lilting folk songs, each work has made the characters of Vyasa alive and very, very close to the Indian psyche.
2. The Central Story
While it is a near-impossibility to indicate even the central thread of the Pandava-Kaurava conflict in a brief resume, we can take a cue from Chakravarti Rajagopalachari’s marvellous condensation of the epic which places the starting point of the epic in the incident of Bhishma taking up his sublime vow.
King Shantanu of the Kuru dynasty was one day walking along the banks of the Ganges river when he came across an extraordinarily beautiful lady. For him it was love at first sight. He proposed marriage to her even without knowing her antecedents. She agreed, but on one condition: Shantanu must not question any of her deeds, even if they appear distasteful. He agreed and there followed a time of bliss. Soon he noticed that his wife was in the habit of drowning their children as soon as they were born. Horrified, yet love-struck, the king kept silent. He could not bear it any more when she proceeded to the Ganges to drown their eighth child, also a handsome male baby. When he remonstrated, she told him that she was the Goddess Ganga. The eight heavenly Vasus had been cursed to be born as mortals. On their request she minimized the tribulations they would have to undergo on earth by killing them as soon as they were born. However, she would not kill the eighth child but return with him to King Shantanu after a while. Ganga kept her word, brought back the son Devavrata as a young man, a full-fledged hero. Handing him over to the father, she withdrew.
King Shantanu later on married Satyavati of the fishermen’s community. The marriage could not take place till Santanu assured her father that her son alone would become the king and not Devavrata. Devavrata took a vow of life-long celibacy and helped the conduct of the marriage. Devavrata’s terrible vow made the gods react with cries of “Bhishma” which means one who has achieved a wondrous act. In the epic of Vyasa, it is Bhishma who is with us from these beginnings till the end of the Kaurava-Pandava conflict on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura were the sons of Shantanu’s son Vichitravirya. Apparently their births seemed auspicious for the land of Kurujangala, Kurukshetra and the Kuru race. The shlokas placed here by Vyasa bring us a rare peace: God is in his heaven and all is right with the world!
happy deer and birds
sweet-smelling flowers and garlands
Merchants and craftsmen
in the cities
the citizens brave
learned, honest, smiling
in the kingdom
loving each other
without anger and greed
delighting in innocence
pleasing each other
guided by Dharma.” 6
Dhritarashtra was wedded to Gandhari and Pandu married Kunti and Madri.Since Dhritarashtra was born blind, Pandu became the king. Guided by Bhishma, Pandu expanded the empire. At the height of his power and fame, he became the victim of a curse. He renounced the empire and retired to the forest. Kunti gave birth to Yudhistira, Bhima and Arjuna. Madri had Nakula and Sahadeva. When Pandu died, Madri committed suttee with him. Kunti returned to Hastinapura with her young sons and they grew up together with the one hundred sons of Dhritarashtra who was now the king. Dhritarashtra’s eldest son was Duryodhana. From their student-days onwards, Duryodhana and his brothers could not get on with their cousins, the Pandavas. As the years went by, things became worse since Duryodhana tried to kill the five brothers.
Unfortunately, Dhritarashtra favoured his son’s ways, though outwardly he acted as if his sympathies lay with the Pandavas. Meanwhile Arjuna won the Drupada princess Draupadi in a contest and she became the wife of all the Pandavas. Bhishma was happy and proud of the Pandavas and successfully persuaded Dhritarashtra to share power with them. Though in the division of the kingdom the Pandavas did not get a fair share, they did not mind. Instead, they set out to improve what had been given to them. The inaccessible Khandava forest was burnt down and there arose in its stead the handsome capital of Indraprastha. The Pandavas conducted a magnificent Rajasuya Sacrifice which only increased the frustration of Duryodhana. He was particularly jealous of Arjuna and Bhima and thought his own shame was written in the gaze of the manly Arjuna and the giant Bhima! In his Panchali Sapatham, Subramania Bharati points out how Duryodhana’s heart was corroded:
“As when fire from earth’s deep centre
Boils and makes way to the crust
And its great heat melts the rock
And the lava flows and spreads;
The volcanic envy in his heart
Erupted in his mind and soul,
All strength and manliness melted,
Valour and honour were lost.” 7
Giving in to his pleadings Dhritarashtra invited Yudhistira to Hastinapura for a game of dice. Despite Vidura’s appeal not to fall into the trap, Yudhistira accepts the challenge as a true philosopher. Duryodhana gets his evil-minded uncle Sakuni to play on his behalf. Yudhistira is systematically denuded of all his possessions, and even the personal liberty of the five Pandavas. Challenged further by Sakuni, Yudhistira makes Draupadi a stake. It is a terrible, soul-scorching scene as Panchali is lost. The Pandavas are frozen by the calamity while the Kauravas exult and call upon the ‘slave’ Draupadi to present herself in the court. On Duryodhana’s command, she is dragged into the Assembly Hall by Dushasana. Her pleadings and arguments in the Kaurava court are in vain. Even Bhishma expresses his helplessness in the name of received tradition when she questions him regarding a woman’s place in the society: is woman an independent person or merely a chattel owned by man? Her words pour forth with terrifying intensity:
“Finely, bravely spoken Sir!
When treacherous Ravana, having carried away
And lodged Sita in his garden,
Called his ministers and law-givers
And told them the deed he had done,
These same wise old advisers declared:
‘Thou hast done the proper thing:
‘Twill square with dharma’s claims!’
When the demon king rules the land
Needs must the sastras feed on filth!
Was it well done to trick my guileless king
To play at dice? Wasn’t it deceit,
A predetermined act of fraud
Meant to deprive us of our land?
O ye that have sisters and wives.
Isn’t this a crime on Woman?
Would you be damned for ever? 8
Subramania Bharati had unerringly chosen a theme that would symbolize the problems then facing the country and his own faith in Mahashakti to overcome the ills of helpless human beings. He was writing at a time when Mother India was in shackles and downtrodden by foreigners and when women were being mistreated by men in every way. This multi-pronged signification of the Mahabharata heroine by Subramania Bharati has been well brought out by K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar:
“Just as Vidula’s exhortation to her son Sanjay in the Udyoga-Parva comes to us today with the fervour of a stirring national anthem, so too the story of Draupadi’s travail and ultimate triumph is seen invested with a high potential of significance that comprehends all instances of hard dealing, all records of wickedness, all manifestations of man’s cruelty to man, all terror-haunted crucifixions, jehads, Belsens and Noakhalis. Draupadi, seen in this light, is the hunted amongst us, haunted by the spectre of Duhshasana approaching us with unclean aggressive hands, dazed by a feeling of the futility of the Bhishmas, Viduras and Dronas that drone their somnolent words, strong only in our strength to die and in our unfaltering faith in God. More particularly, Draupadi the blessed eternal feminine is also Bharata Mata reduced to slavery and penury by her own dear ones, taunted and manacled and humiliated by the greedy foreigner no less than by the treacherous ‘friend’, starved in her body and maimed in her soul, isolated, trapped, mutilated– and yet somehow alive, alive with the strength of her Faith, alive in the knowledge of the puissance of God’s timely succour. Draupadi whose soul is hurt by the spectacle of human cruelty, Bharata Mata whose body is bruised and whose soul is writhing in agony, and the Great Creatrix– the seed-of-all, womb-of-all—coalesce together and confuse our familiar categories of understanding. Draupadi is no doubt Woman–she is all the women who have borne the burden of suffering in this sullied sublunary sphere—but she is also, seen from another angle, the Shakti to whose awakened eyes the Parashakti has revealed Herself, and Her Personalities and Powers. Bharati’s Panchali Sapatham viewed thus in the context of the Aurobindonian and Gandhian revolutions of our time is somewhat of a mantra of redemption, an enunciation of the religion of patriotism.”
In this moment of utter despair, Draupadi makes the supreme gesture of complete surrender to God. Her faith in God is absolute, her rejection of all earthly support is final. She lifts both her hands from the portion of the garment covering her and joins them in an act of prapatti, a symbol of the charama sloka in the Gita: “Abandon all dharmas, and take refuge in Me alone. I will deliver thee from all sin and evil. Do not grieve.”
When Krishna’s grace flows over her as streams of garments, one must needs go to Bharati again for the visual and the similes:
“Like the woes of liars,
The fame of the wise,
Like woman’s pity,
Like the waves of the troubled sea:
Even as, when people praise the Mother
The tide of their fortunes surges more and more,
As Duhshasana dared the outrage,
Their came robe after robe
By the grace of the Lord;
They came without end,
Clothes of colours how many,
And clothes innumerable.” 9
The crisis is past but not the woes of the Pandavas. Infuriated by the act of Duhshasana, Bhima vows that he would tear open his chest and drink his blood. The assembled courtiers are also disillusioned and cry out against Duryodhana. Sensing the mood of the assemblage, Dhritarashtra gifts the freedom of the Pandavas to Draupadi. However, they are called back again by Dhritarashtra for another round of dice. Fate-impelled Yudhistira loses everything again to Sakuni. The Pandavas and Draupadi go to the forests in exile for twelve years to be followed by a year of living incognito before claiming back their kingdom.
The Vana and Virata Parvas form the scenes for the Pandavan wanderings and incidentally give us innumerable branch stories that have since then become part of the racial consciousness. For instance, the legend of Nala that closely parallels that of the Pandavas which is narrated to them by Sage Brihadaswa has been a living experience for Indians who go to Tirunallar even now to worship Shani Bhagawan and be rid ofkali-dosha. For, the Kali attack on Nala and Damayanti has been a dreaded page in our cultural history. Such has been its closeness to the Indian psyche that it has been a tradition to recite a sloka in the morning that is said to keep us away from danger throughout the day:
Karkotakasya nagasya, damayantya Nalasya cha,
Rituparnasya rajarsheh kirtanam Kali nasanam
(Sing of the Karkotaka snake, Damayanti, Nala and the royal sage Rituparna– to destroy the effects of Kali.)
And we are told that if we wish to escape the destructive effects of Kali, we ought to narrate to ourselves or others the story of Nala and Damayanti. The tradition must already have been there and so listening to Nala’s story would help the Pandavas overcome the evil effects of Kali. We must note that in Sage Brihadaswa’s telling there were some important points. Thus when Pushkara challenged Nala to stake his wife, the latter did not. Instead, he threw down his ornaments and those of Damayanti and both of them went out of the palace. For three nights they stayed in the outskirts of the capital subsisting on fruits and roots. Since Pushkara had let it be known that anyone found helping Nala would be punished with death, none dared to come close to them. The travails of Nala and Damayanti had begun. All is well that ends well, they say. The story of Nala must have brought comfort to the Pandavan exiles; and certainly the indictment insinuated by Sage Brihadaswa was well-taken. Draupadi was not made a stake again.
Each experience of the exiles became a scripture of dharma for the reader.TheYaksha-prashna, for instance. It is pure wisdom! After successfully completing their exile in Virata where they remained unrecognized, the Pandavas emerged in the open and demanded their kingdom back. Duryodhana refused. Most of the Pandava group wanted war as they could not forget the insults and indignities they had suffered at the hands of Duryodhana and his henchmen. Krishna went as an ambassador on their behalf to the Kauravas. Duryodhana would not listen to reason.
It is a curious situation. Bhishma, the grandsire of the Kuru dynasty, knew full well that dharma was on the side of the Pandavas. He loved Arjuna deeply, yet he led the Kaurava forces. Draupadi’s brother Dhrishtadhyumna, was the commander-in-chief of the Pandava forces. The war raged for eighteen days and on the Kaurava side there had to be changes made regularly to lead the army. Bhishma’s command lasted for ten days; he was followed by Drona as the Commander-in-chief for five days; Karna took over for the following two days; Salya’s command was only for half a day, while the rest of that day was taken up with the duel between Bhima and Duryodhana. During all these eighteen days Dhrishtadhyumna was the unwearying Commander-in-chief of the Pandava forces and he was felled in the middle of the eighteenth day’s night by the unheroic and dastardly crime committed by Aswattthama, Kripacharya and Kritavarma.
If the earlier narratives gave us plentiful of upakhyanas, the Books of War (Bhishma, Drona, Karna, Shalya and Sauptika) give us plenty of information to think about what constitutes dharma and what goes against it. Some of the greatest scenarios– dreadful mostly– occur in these Parvas.Abhimanyu who was killed when he was unarmed, the ancient Pragjyotisha king Bhagadatta who tied his drooping eyelids up and fought riding his huge elephant Supratika, Ghatotkacha who could be killed only by Karna’s Shakti missile, the amazing discourse on yogas by Krishna to Arjuna, the recounting of the Lord’s one thousand names by Bhishma even as he lay on a bed of arrows mortally wounded, the moment when Karna forgot missile-mantras due to Parasurama’s curse, the end of unarmed Bhurishravas… so many! The Great War ends but there is no joy or excitement. We have the Stri Parva where the great heroines weep for their dead fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and grandsons seen through the eyes of Gandhari, in an exceptionally heart-rending lamentation.
Shanti Parva and Anushasana Parva are full of important instructions regarding the way one must lead a dharmic life on earth. Here we see the great warrior Bhishma as an equally great teacher. And the stories keep coming, never a dull narrative! It is in Anushasana Parva that we get to hear of Shiva’s greatness through Upamanyu who also recites the Shiva Sahasranama. The amazing tale of the disciple Vipula, the bereaved mother Gautami’s compassionate message… there is nothing of human experience that has not been noted down in the Mahabharata! Ashvamedhika Parva describes the Horse Sacrifice performed by King Yudhistira. Ashramvasika Parva has Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti going away to the forest to end their days. It is significant that Queen Mother Kunti takes the decision not to remain in the midst of royal pomp and prefers to spend her last days serving those whose decisions had resulted in the terrible war. Maushala Parva is about the internecine warfare among Yadavas and their total destruction. Mahaprasthanika Parva records the feelings of the Pandavas on hearing of the passing away of Krishna, the crowning of Parikshit and their undertaking the final journey.
“As they had once before left
After losing the dice-game,
With Draupadi making a group of six.
But the brothers were cheerful.
Yudhistira’s decision was final,
And the Vrishnis were all wiped out.
The five brothers set out,
Krishna-Draupadi making the sixth.
Following them was a seventh,
A dog.” 10
Bound to their yoga, they travelled far and wide, crossing many rivers and even seas (saritah sagarastata). On their way Agni appeared before them and advised Arjuna to give up his Gandiva to Varuna which he did. Thus circumambulating the earth, they came to the Himalayas. Passing beyond it, Draupadi, Sahadeva, Nakula, Arjuna and Bhima fell down dead one after another. Yudhistira alone, accompanied by the dog moved further on. Indra arrived in his chariot to take Yudhistira to heaven but the Dharmic brother would not agree. He wanted to go where his brothers were. Indra assured him they were in heaven. Now Yudhistira wanted the dog to accompany him to heaven. When Indra asked him to forget the dog, Yudhistira rejected the idea repeatedly;
“O thousand-eyed god!’
For a man of character
To do a deed
Is extremely difficult.
I want no glory
That involves abandoning
A bhakta of mine ...
This is my vow,
I will not swerve from it.
I will not abandon
A bhakta, a brutalized,
Or one who is helpless,
Even if my own life
Is in danger.” 11
Indra is pleased and invites him to ascend to heaven but once again Yudhistira refuses as he would not like to be at a place where his brothers are absent. In the final Book, the Svargarohana Parva Yudhisitra gets to see the Kauravas in heaven and his own brothers in hell. Rishi Narada’s words bring him no comfort. He prefers to stay in Hell. Now Yama-Dharmaraja speaks to Yudhistira:
“O king, I am greatly pleased, O thou of great wisdom, with thee, O son, by thy devotion to me, by thy truthfulness of speech, and forgiveness, and self-restraint. This, indeed, is the third test, O king, to which I put thee. Thou art incapable, O son of Pritha, of being swerved from thy nature or reason. Before this, I had examined thee in the Dwaita woods by my questions, when thou hadst come to that lake for recovering a couple of fire sticks. Thou stoodst it well. Assuming the shape of a dog, I examined thee once more, O son, when thy brothers with Draupadi had fallen down. This has been thy third test; thou hast expressed thy wish to stay at Hell for the sake of thy brothers. Thou hast become cleansed, O highly blessed one. Purified of sin, be thou happy. O son of Pritha, thy brothers, O king, were not such as to deserve Hell. All this has been an illusion created by the chief of the gods. Without doubt, all kings, O son, must once behold Hell. Hence hast thou for a little while been subjected to this great affliction.” 12
Having cast off his human body by bathing in the celestial Ganga, Yudhistira gained the form of a deva. He joined the celestial group in heaven where all his people were found in a state beyond joy and grief. Thus ends the Mahabharata in a mood of peace that passeth mere human understanding.
Of the hundreds of characters in the Mahabharata, there are many who seem to be our shadows. They walk with us all the time. Of these again, seven persons remain with us, whether we are awake or asleep. The first and foremost of them is Bhishma. His is the haunting image of the doughty warrior. What is it that he has not seen in his long, long life? To have sailed through it all without a shadow cast on his personal integrity makes us wonder at the noble Dharma that was created by our ancestors. The holiness of a vow, a pratijna. This is something which is not set aside with impunity even in these days of moral turpitude. In a way, the long, tragic life of Bhishma was perhaps of his own making. Had he not decided, so early in his life to take a terrible vow? We go to the very beginnings of the Mahabharata to know the circumstances of the vow.
Mother Ganga had brought Devavrata as a young man to Santanu. A heir to the haloed throne of Kuruvamsa! King Sgantanu must have been the happiest of man that day. The mother herself assured the king about Devavrata’s attainments:
With Vasishta he studied
The Vedas and Vedangas;
he’s a fine archer, like the raja of the gods
Indra himself in battle.
Both the gods and anti-gods
regard him highly.
Whatever Vedas and sastras
Sakra-Indra knows, he knows too.
Whatever Vedas and sastras
the son of Angiras,
honoured by gods and anti-gods, knows
this child knows too.
All weapons that were known
to the son of Jamadagni, Parasurama,
are known to this shining,
He is a splendid archer,
he knows the arts of war,
and the dharma of rajas.
O raja, take hm home.” 13
King Shantanu was delighted and soon after he crowned Devavrata as the heir-apparent. The prince brought joy to everyone by his natural goodness. Four years later, Shantanu happened to be walking on the banks of Yamuna. Here he met the daughter of the chief of fishermen and wished to marry her. The father said he had no objection to the marriage provided the king would assure him that the girl’s son would succeed Shantanu to the throne. Shantanu refused to give any such assurance and returned to Hastinapura. When some time had passed, Devavrata noticed that his father was not the same as before and some worry was eating him from within. On being asked, the king merely said:
“That I wonder, son of Ganga,
should anything happen to you ..
what will happen to our dynasty?
You are more than a hundred sons to me.
It isn’t that I wish to marry
again. My only wish is
that you should prosper,
and our dynasty continue.
Wise men say: One son
is no son at all,
having one son only is
like having one eye only.
That eye lost, means body lost.
That son lost, means family doomed.
Agni-hotr-fire-worship and Veda-knowledge
do not give one-sixteenth
the merit that comes
with the birth of a son,
In this respect, it is said,
all creatures are alike.
O maha-learned Bharata!
I believe firmly that heaven
is his who has a son.
The eternal Vedas, essence of the Puranas,
The three shining lights are:
children, karma and knowledge.
My dear child, tata, of these
the greatest is children.
You, my son, O great Bharata,
are strong-willed, you are always
practising various war weapons.
should you die in battle,
What will be the fate, my dear son, tata,
of our race, our dynasty?
This is the cause of my sorrow.
now you know.” 14
Being intelligent Devavrata did not argue. He went to a trusted minister of Shantanu and learnt of the real cause of the king’s depression. He went straight to the girl’s father who was holding court, and promised him that her son would be king after Shantanu. The father remained unconvinced. Devavrata was a man of honour, but suppose his sons were to create problems later on, holding up the law of primogeniture? Without a moment’s hesitation Devavrata said:
“O Dasa-raja! Finest of men!
Listen to my words
which I utter in the presence
of these great kshatriyas …
Did I not, O Kshatriyas,
give up my right to the throne
a little while ago?
let me settle this once and for all now.
Fisherman, from today
I adopt celibacy.
I am now a brahmachari.
Sonless, nonetheless I will find heaven.” 15
Vyasa says that immediately the gods above rained flowers upon the head of Devavrata saying, bhishmoyam iti abhruvan (this person is terrible). Indeed a person who could undertake such a vow of life-long brahmacharya must have heroic self-control. As a result, Devavrata came to be known as Bhishma (the terrible) for all time. Events followed in quick succession after the youthful prince took the vow. He brought Satyavati to Shantanu at Hastinapura and conveyed to the assembled courtiers all that had happened. While they applauded him, Shantanu accepted her and bestowed upon Bhishma the boon of svachchandamaranam (death at will).
This vow of life-long brahmacharya turned out to be the cause of Bhishma’s fame as well as his sorrow-laden life. There are no soliloquies about the state of Bhishma’s mind during his long life when this vow had come in the way of smoothening out a major problem. Jatindra Mohan Sengupta has tried to do exactly this in his long poem, Bhishma’s Bed of Arrows (1928). From the moment he proclaimed, adhyaprabhruti me daasa brahmacharyam bhavishyati to the instant when he fell from his chariot in the Kurukshetra field like the flag of Indra, his had been a life of action, not contemplation. Now lying still on the bed of arrows, he has a longish remembrance of things past. Regrets? He must have definitely wondered, was it all worth the sacrifice? Was it right that he refused to marry Amba when she was directionless? After all, was it not Bhishma who had caused her problem? When Satyavati herself asked him to get children through Ambika and Ambalika after Vichitravirya’s death, he refused and instead went for Vyasa:
“Scriptual sanction I hunted out,
sacrificing sound sense.
In my family arrived
blind and anaemic sons.
Hear, O Lord,
my bed-of-arrows' not without cause.
That sordid act with Kuru wives
burns my heart still.
"Or dharma would have been violated!"—they say,
perhaps that very day
Kuru dynasty would've ended;
but with it all Kshatriyas of Bharata
wouldn't be extinct.” 16
Bhishma could not have been happy when his beloved Arjuna was made to share his wife with all his brothers. Was it not adultery? But he had kept silent. Sengupta insinuates that from the day he took the vow, he had been lying upon a metaphorical bed to which arrows were added in succession. Had he not failed all women with whom he had come in contact? He had brought Amba by force to Hastinapura and her life was in ruins. He had chosen Gandhari for Dhritarashtra without realizing how disappointed the young princess must feel at a connection which she could not refuse. And Panchali! Had his vow of brahmacharya rendered him into a physical stone when it had to face a crisis involving a woman? He had remained in his seat unmoving when the great Drupada’s daughter, the sister of Drishtadhyumna, his own grand-daughter-in-law was dragged into the Hall by Duhshasana by her tresses. When Draupadi asked him whether this was right, whether a wife could be gambled away in dice, he had no answer. He who had not been humanised by a woman’s presence hid himself in the profound term, Dharma.
“Bhisma said, ‘fortune-favoured lady,
I know a man with no wealth
cannot stake another’s wealth
I also know a wife
is at her husband’s command.
What can I say?
It is all very puzzling.
Dharma is very subtle.
Yudhistira will give up the entire world
rather than deviate from dharma.
‘I have been won’. Very confusing.
I don’t know what to say.” 17
That is all! What cowards can heroes be! As Sengupta races towards the end of the old man’s soliloquy, we can only pity a broken spirit:
“Vainly in youth throne and wife I sacrificed
for family's sake;
Truth itself departs from him
who swears for falsehood's sake.
Who opens the path to sin
Gains not renouncing's merit.
Divine-play is revealed when man loses humanity:--
behind Shikhandi, Partha battles,--
on the chariot Hari smiles,
fortunate Bhishma had the boon
to die only at will.” 18
It then becomes obvious that Bhishma’s vow was the false start of a great but star-crossed life. Sengupta feels that Santanu’s boon of svachchandamaranam turned out to be as much a curse as the vow itself. Of course the characters and events of the epic can face any number of readings. However, as far as Bhishma is concerned the boon of ‘dying at will’ brings to us one of the most poignant episodes in the Mahabharata. On the tenth day of the battle Sanjaya describes the scene to Dhritarashtra:
“Just before sunset, while your sons watched,
as he fell, O Bharata,
cries of ‘Hai Hai’ from gods and earth-lords
rent the air.
‘Bhisma has fallen from his chariot!’
A maha uproar!
With the fall of the mahatma Pitamaha
from his chariot,
The hearts of all who witnessed it
Maha-muscled Bhisma was the bravest
of brilliant bowmen –
And he fell
like Indra’s shredded war flag
thudding on the earth
and making it tremble,
so riddled with arrows
his body did not touch the ground.
That bull-brave hero,
that maha-bowman Bhisma,
chariot-toppled, lay on his arrowy bed,
The rain-cloud Parjanya
It is Dakshinayana still. Ah, there is no need for Bhishma to hurry to the abode of Yama. Lying on the spread of arrows, he seems to cover the earth and the sky. It is a mystic moment when he hears voices as from nowhere. “How can Gangeya, the noble archer, master of Time, the best among men, leave his body during Dakshinayana?” Who is this speaking? His mother? Or his mother’s emissary? Did Bhishma think of Ganga then? Did he send a message to her through his heart? Vyasa writes:
“Respecting his desire
the sacred Ganga
sent maharsis disguised
as hamsa swans to Bhisma
to attend on him.
In the form of swans
flying in the sky
The rsis proceeded
to the field where Bhisma
the Kuru Pitamaha
finest of men
lay waiting for death
on his bed of arrows.
the Kuru Pitamaha
the enhancer of the glory
of the Kaurava dynasty
on his bed of arrows.
Eyes fixed on mahatma
they did pradaksina
to that best of the Bharatas
when the sun was still
in its southern solstice.
They looked at each other
and wisely wondered.
How is it possible
that mahatma Bhisma
should will his death
in the summer solstice?
Saying this the hamsas
flew to the south.
Seeing them depart
O Bharata descendant
and addressed them saying:
‘It is not my will
to give up my life
so long as the sun
still lingers in its
When the sun enters
its northern solstice
I tell you truly O swans
only then will I enter
the ancient abode
where I must go.” 19
We must remember that all this is occurring in the middle of the battlefield. The war has another week left of adharmic hostilities. And yet, in this terrible moment, a mother’s undying love for her child gets into action. All her child wants now is the destruction of adharma and the victory of dharma. Bhishma has had enough of his alignment with Duryodhana’s party. He must die only after seeing Yudhistira crowned, Arjuna safe and Panchali vindicated.
So Bhishma breathes still and watches fondly as Arjuna builds a pillow of arrows for him. He refuses to be treated by the doctors and take medicines. The next morning there is utter peace for a while as all the Kauravas and Pandavas sit around him “as in days of yore, with mutual love”, anyonyam preetimanthasthe yathaapurvam yathaavayah. Bhishma wants water, as he finds it difficult to breathe and looks at the kshatriyas surrounding him: paniyamiti samprekshya rajyasthan pratyabhashata. Immediately Duryodhana and his brothers bring plenty of pots with cool water and a variety of eatables as well. Bhishma refuses all that. He has nothing more to do with such material pleasures of eating and drinking. It is a proud moment for him when he asks Arjuna for water to be given in accordance with shastras, dhaatumaapo yataavidhih. The grandson salutes him, ascends his chariot, circumambulates Bhishma, strings the Gandiva and sends an arrow into the earth on the right side of Bhishma:
“A clear jet of pure, auspicious water
sweet as amrita-nectar
and scented with sacred rasa.
With that cool jet of water
Pandu’s son Partha-Arjuna slaked
The thirst of illustrious god-like Bhisma,
finest of the Kauravas.” 20
If Manasa Ganga had sent rishis to remind Bhishma of the coming Uttarayana, it appeared now that Patala Ganga herself had sprung up to assuage her child’s thirst. It is a great thought to remember that Ganga as a mother is thus seen closest to her son as he lay dying on the field of Kurukshetra. She must have been doing that throughout the rest of Bhishma’s life on earth while he watched the battle draw to a close, heard that Yudhistira had been crowned, taught him Dharma and revealed the Supreme in Krishna by reciting the Sri Vishnu Sahasranama.
While there are several important encounters in Bhishma’s life, the one with Karna at the close of the Bhishma Parva is memorable. Bhishma is fallen and the warrior-kin have all gone back to their camps. As the grandsire is stretched on the arrows, Karna comes to him. Karna had sulked all these ten days, keeping away from the battle. All their life together in the Kaurava party, they had spewed hatred at each other. Karna is not sure of a welcome when he bows to Bhishma. To his astonishment, Bhishma asks the guards to leave the place and embraces Karna with one hand, showing great affection, as a father would hug his son. Then he tells him the truth about his parentage. He is the son of Kunti, not Adhiratha! If he knew this why did he reject Karna always?
“You mix with the mean,
you are jealous of the noble.
That is why I spoke harshly to you
in the gathering of the Kauravas.
I know you are a terror to your foes.
I know you honour Brahmins and are supremely generous.
O god-like hero, there is none
in the world of humans
to equal you.
I spoke harshly to you
because I wanted to prevent dissensions
in the family.
in fixing and aiming arrows,
in the impact of your weapons,
you are the equal of Phalguna-Arjuna
and mahatma Krishna.
in Kasi, single-handed,
with just a bow,
you humbled the other rajas
when you were seeking a bride
for Kuru-raja Duryodhana.” 21
Now all the hatred is gone and it is time for peace and togetherness. Bhishma prays to Karna to unite with the Pandavas. Karna refuses with due respect.
“’Maha-muscled one’, Karna replied,
‘I am aware of all this.
I do not disbelieve you, Bhisma.
I am not the son of a charioteer,
I am Kunti’s son.
But Kunti abandoned me,
a charioteer brought me up.
I have been friendly with Duryodhana.
‘Whatever difficult work is to be done,
I will do it for you.’
This promise I made Suyodhana Duryodhana.
I have received his favours –
I cannot betray him in crisis.
Like Vasudeva’s son Krishna
who is vow-determined to help the Pandavas,
my wealth, my body, my sons, my wife, my honour,
I will sacrifice them all I necessary
for Duryodhana’s sake.
O Bhisma, you who offer large daksinas
it is in order to save Ksatriyas from dying of
That I have chosen to serve Suyodhana Duryodhana
and angrily oppose the Pandavas.
what will happen, will happen.
Who can stop it from happening?
Who overcomes fate
by struggling against it?” 22
They part in peace, Bhishma blessing Karna to go on the way chosen by him. “Freed from pride, and relying on thy (own) might and energy, engage in battle, since a Kshatriya cannot have a (source of) greater happiness than a righteous battle.” For, on the morrow Karna would begin to take part in the Kurukshetra war.
The Shanti and Anushasana Parvas are treasure-troves of wisdom. One can take up any canto and remain absorbed in it. Polity, mythology, geography, ritualism, philosophy, metaphysics, folk wisdom are but few of the many topics studied in these Books. Sometimes Bhishma sounds utterly contemporaneous. Since often the teachings come in the shape of stories, there is never a dull moment in these bulky Parvas.
Towards the end of the Anushasana Parva, Uttarayana begins. For fifty-eight days Bhishma had been on the terrible bed and it had seemed as one hundred years to him. He comforted Dhritarashtra and took leave of everyone, and gave up his life by yogic control. The arrows fell away from his limbs, his breath broke out of his crown as an illumination and vanished. His soul proceeded on the way to heaven. Bhishma’s body was cremated according to Vedic rites and all the kshatriyas went to the Ganges to perform the tarpana for the departed soul. Once again the anguished heart of the mother is revealed to us:
“The goddess Bhagirathi, after those oblations of water had been offered by them unto her son, rose up from the stream, weeping and distracted by sorrow. In the midst of her lamentations, she addressed the Kurus, 'Ye sinless ones, listen to me as I say unto you all that occurred (with respect to my son). Possessed of royal conduct and disposition, and endued with wisdom and high birth, my son was the benefactor of all the seniors of his race. He was devoted to his sire and was of high vows. He could not be vanquished by even Rama of Jamadagni's race with his celestial weapons of great energy. Alas, that hero has been slain by Sikhandin. Ye kings, without doubt, my heart is made of adamant, for it does not break even at the disappearance of that son from my sight! At the Self choice at Kasi, he vanquished on a single car the assembled Kshatriyas and ravished the three princesses (for his step-brother Vichitravirya)! There was no one on earth that equalled him in might. Alas, my heart does not break upon hearing the slaughter of that son of mine by Sikhandin!” 23
Krishna comforts her with soft and truthful words:
“O amiable one, be comforted. Do not yield to grief, O thou of beautiful features! Without doubt, thy son has gone to the highest region of felicity! He was one of the Vasus of great energy. Through a curse, O thou of beautiful features, he had to take birth among men. It behoveth thee not to grieve for him. Agreeably to Kshatriya duties, he was slain by Dhananjaya on the field of battle while engaged in battle. He has not been slain, O goddess, by Sikhandin. The very chief of the celestials himself could not slay Bhishma in battle when he stood with stretched bow in hand. O thou of beautiful face, thy son has, in felicity, gone to heaven. All the gods assembled together could not slay him in battle. Do not, therefore, O goddess Ganga, grieve for that son of Kuru's race. He was one of the Vasus, O goddess! Thy son has gone to heaven. Let the fever of thy heart be dispelled.” 24
Comforted thus, the greatest of rivers, Ganga, descended back into her waters. Having honoured the Ganga river, Krishna and others took leave of her and came away. Thus ends the history of one of the greatest heroes of the Mahabharata.
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