RSS

Bhishma – A Life Unfulfilled

07 Sep

Bhishma , to me , looks an enormous waste of strength , learning and of life .He, in a way , also represents how inactivity and misplaced sense of loyalty could diminish a mighty one to a miniscule and be brushed aside with disdain. at no risk of retaliation. He brings grief on to himself and unto others around him by his inactivity and at times by needlessly meddling in others’ lives . His life too ends in a sort of irony with his past haunting to wound him mortally and thereafter prompting him to render lengthy discourses , from his death bed , on the things that he did not practice in life .His listener, too tired , listless and disillusioned scarcely had time or opportunity to put into use what he learnt from the savant on a death bed of arrows.

I wonder how his treatment of women, earlier in his life, will stand up to the present day norms of decency towards women and respecting their freedom of choice.

As his half-brother Vichitravirya was still a child when he was crowned the king, Bhishma ruled as his regent. When the young king was of the age to marry, Bhishma looked around for a suitable bride. He heard that the king of Kashi was holding a swayamvara for his three daughters. Since Vichitravirya himself was too young and weak to stand any chance of being chosen by the young women, Bhishma raided the swayamvara and forcibly abducted the three brides-to be – Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika – against their will , while the assembled suitor-kings/princes were shouting protests that his he broke the code of conduct that all of them had agreed upon , to respect the wishes and the decisions of the three women .

Of the three sisters , Amba’s is a heart rendering tale ,one of suppressed rage of a strong female .She went up to Bhishma and said “you are well aware that Salva the king of Saubala. and I are married in spirit, if not according to the sastras. You brought me here by force, do you think what you did was right.” Bhishma conceded and sent her back to Salva.

Ecstatic, Amba ran to Salva and asked him “Marry me.” Salva however rejected her because of his humiliation in defeat to Bhishma and told her ” Go back to Bhishma and do as he commands ” . Amba returned to Hastinapura and narrated her predicament to Bhishma who then asked Vichitravirya to marry the third sister Amba too .But , he too refused Amba saying that he couldn’t marry someone whose heart was already with another.

Amba, desperate then, attacked Bhishma rebuking him that he and his meddling ways were the cause of all her troubles. “Marry me,” she said, “set things right.” Bhishma, of course, had taken the vow of Brahmacharya and insisted on preserving his celibacy intact.

For six long years, Amba went from warrior to warrior, seeking someone who would fight Bhishma on her behalf. None came forward; such was the fear that Bhishma evoked in the minds of men. Consumed by helpless rage Amba threw herself into a funeral pyre .

It is said Amba was born again as Shikandin, vowed to kill Bhishma.

Amba is an example of the suppressed voice of a strong female As a woman she lacked the ability to avenge herself. No male dared to help her against Bhishma. She therefore needed to be a man of the kshatriya class to fulfill her vow. Perhaps there might be a case of transformation lurking here. In any case , at the great battle of Kurukshetra , Sikhandin joined Arjuna on a chariot, and they slew Bhishma with a flood of arrows. Bhishma refused to retaliate against Sikhandin because he recognized Amba in him.

A couple of interesting themes come up in this part of the story. One is the use of ambiguous sexualities. The other is the fine line between love and hate. Some believe Amba’s time in the forest led to love for Bhishma, which masqueraded as intense hatred. Killing him was also a favor done to him by releasing him from his self-forced bachelorhood.

 ***

It might have been a common practice among the princes of those days to take brides by force , if necessary .But, Bishma captured the brides to be , not for himself but for his half-brother, still a boy, and incapable of winning a wife for himself. No kshatriya princess would love to or even care to marry a man who cannot win a wife for himself .

Somehow the Bharatas seemed to have fallen into a habit of bringing home brides by force , much against their will. . It started with Satyavati , then Ambika and Ambalika. Similar was the story with Gandhari and Madri . Bishma could be credited with bringing brides for three generations of the Bharatas – for his father, for his half-brother, and for his nephews, though he himself remained unmarried. None of those women had a happy life ; they were angry and hurt all their life.

****

Ambika and Ambalika were married to Vichitravirya. However, soon after the marriage, Vichitravirya died of consumption , producing no heir to the throne. Hastinapura was left with two widowed queens, a widowed queen mother and a regent ; but no king. Therefore ,Vyasa ,the son born to the queen-mother out of wedlock ,was summoned to father sons from out of the widowed queens. Pandu and Dhritarashtra were born of that loveless copulation – one was pale with anemia and the other was born blind.

I understand that true love and passion cannot be bought or demanded; and that intimacy comes only when a woman gives it freely on her own terms .Offering her body to her partner epitomizes her commitment. It signifies intense expression of love . In this case, Ambika and Ambalika were forced into loveless copulation with their brother-in-law in order to produce an heir to the throne.

This idea of a levirate marriage was introduced into Mahabharata , with Vyasa fathering sons through the widows of his half-brother. This also brought into focus the separation of love and sex .This theme extended further into the epic when it became an important premise of the relationship of Pandu and his wives, Kunti and Madri. Pandu’s cursed life forced his wives to beget children from someone else . Out of devotion to their husband, they vulnerably joined flesh with another ,  be they gods. Kunti the warm -blooded woman she was , longing for intimacy with her husband cried at the funeral of Pandu and Madri, “She was more fortunate than I, to have seen his face alive again” .

The purpose of all this sordid mess was to perpetuate the Bharata lineage. However , no Bharata blood ran through the veins of Dhritarashtra or Pandu or even in the sons of Pandu. With this as a foundation, is it any wonder the family was dysfunctional..?!

Bishma , to put it bluntly , not only messed up his life but threw the lives of those around him and the of the next generation into a vortex of sordid mess presided over by a blind father and a meddlesome patriarch.

 ****

The most brazen act of evil by the Kauravas was threatening a woman’s chastity; and with that the Kauravas sank to the lowest level of adharma. That was also the lowest point in Bishma’s life.

Draupadi a bride of the Bharatas , his granddaughter-in-law, a woman in her periods and clad in a single piece of cloth was dragged by her hair into an open assembly , stripped almost naked and called a whore. Bhishma the elder statesman and the most senior member of the royal family , just watched in silence and shame ; he did not utter a word in protest or in her defense. Even if his misplaced loyalty prevented him uttering a protest , he could have defended her as any right thinking man would have done had a helpless woman been dragged and humiliated in public, in his presence.

Draupadi , the brave woman she was , amidst all that wretchedness, pointedly challenges Bhishma the knower of Dharma and demands an answer from him , whether Yudhishtira had a right to stake her in the game after he had staked and lost himself and became a slave. Bhishma shame facedly confesses his inability to decide the issue. ”I am unable to answer your question because Dharma is subtle”, he says (na dharmasaukshmyat subhage vivektutm shaknomi te prasnam imam yatthaavat).He even tells her lamely that its essence is concealed in a dark cavern (dharmasya tattvam nihitath guhaayaam). Even if she were to be a slave , was it not an elder’s Dharma to defend a helpless woman in that state?

“Shrinking from ones moral duty, refusal to act when it is difficult to act , attachment to ones interests alone and finding a pretext to one’s delusion- these weaknesses destroy a person and his society.”-Mahabharata.

Watching a unrighteous act that he knew was heinous, keeping his mouth shut was the greatest of unrighteousness of Bishma . That was the conduct of a coward, not of a Kshatriya. He went against his Swadharma. His inaction illustrated that Kshatriya’s “witness” stance brings about the destruction of the kingdom and of the Dharma. The Kshatriya duty is to fight to protect the weak; for that is his Dharma, the truth of his nature. By not being true to his Dharma because of inaction, Bhishma brought destruction and misery not only to himself but also to the society of which he was a pillar. He acted just as a confused, helpless old man scared of his evil and powerful grandson, would do.

The genius of Krishna was that he did not go by the external forms of what looked like dharma . He saw through the evil and improvised apt ways to protect the larger interests of the Dharma. He believed as he said that the essence of Dharma was in ones life , in living it , practicing it and experiencing it; and not in merely talking about it.

It is a validation of this fact we find in Bhishma who from his bed-of-arrows advises Yudhishthira on the duties, responsibilities of a king and the need to protect Dharma. Bhishma in fact had not practiced what he preached. He remained a mute witness to the aggression of Adharma .And to think ,all that happened was because of the greed of one man for power and the inaction of another who refused to stand in the way of that greed, though he was duty bound to; that hurts.

Had Bishma acted in the true spirit of his Dharma, Mahabharata would have been a different Epic.

 ****

As the war looked destined , I am intrigued to no end by his inability to assert his authority in order to settle the dispute . He , perhaps out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to the blind king , his nephew , supports greed and aggression ; and leads the fight , though reluctantly , against what he knew was righteous. He perhaps reasoned that the Kurus (whether righteous or not) were in power now and they had to be supported. That was tragic not merely to Bhishma but to the millions of warriors that perished in the war and to their following generations.

The life story of Bhishma is truly amazing . Bhishma was one of the Vasus, a demi-god, born amidst humans. He was to be killed right at birth by drowning him in the Ganga, just as his seven elder brothers were killed . He escaped death because Shantanu his father desired to be left with at least one son . Of the eight sons of Shantanu and the Ganga , only Bhishma was spared death . I wonder whether that was a blessing or a curse . To me , Bhishma was cursed to live.

At the commencement of the Epic , we come across Bhishma as a young , handsome , strong , austere, brave, self-sacrificing prince, who renounces the throne for his father’s happiness. An ideal son. But somewhere down the way he appears to have lost focus on life. As the Epic gathers pace and gallops towards the inevitable doom , Bhishma ends up as a confused , disillusioned , neglected and a lonely old man whose life littered with errors. He was gifted with everything that a man could ask for ; yet he threw away most of those advantages ; for no reason.

Bhishma , it is said , was gifted with a boon to choose the time of his death. The death dare not approach him till he accorded it his permission. Yet , I sometimes wonder why he chose to live so long. It is sad to see a self-sacrificing , almost a god getting bogged in the mire of this world , meddling with everyone’s life and finally living on and on , unwanted and uncared when he could have chosen to end the agony. Bhishma endured so much pain in life and in battle that even the bed of arrows did not hurt him anymore. It was sad for one who didn’t even want to be born.

There is perhaps a lesson here , too much attachment and involvement in where it is not needed is not merely unrewarding but is dangerous too ; while at the same time sheer inactivity renders one irrelevant. Our texts have always talked about a sense of balance that life should have.

partnernhm (1)

 
13 Comments

Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Mahabharata

 

Tags: , ,

13 responses to “Bhishma – A Life Unfulfilled

  1. close

    September 11, 2014 at 9:49 am

    I was recommended this web site by my cousin. I am not sure
    whether this post is written by him as nobody else know such detailed about my difficulty.
    You are amazing! Thanks!

     
    • sreenivasaraos

      September 11, 2014 at 10:53 am

      Dear Close , Thanks for the visit.

      Please also check the posts relating to Mahabharata ( see the subject-list)

      There are many other articles on certain characters and the issues related to Mahabarata.

      Regards

       
  2. Casie

    September 24, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    Very rapidly this web page will be famous among all blogging visitors, due to it’s fastidious
    articles

     
    • sreenivasaraos

      September 25, 2014 at 2:40 pm

      Thanks for the appreciation.
      Trust you read some of the articles posted here.

      Regards

       
  3. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 5:24 am

    dear sir

    a very beautiful analysis. but the question still remains: why didn’t bhishma act or assert his authority? could misplaced loyalty blind a person to this extent?

    the high point of your post is the comparison between bhishma and krishna.

    a very apt message for all times to come.

    thanks for the wonderful post.

    regards
    melody

     
    • sreenivasaraos

      March 21, 2015 at 5:24 am

      dear melody queen ,

      thank you for the comment.

      that was an interesting observation .i do not know the complete answer to that question. i guess , apart from his misplaced sense of loyalty and hence missing the bigger picture , the following could be other reasons for his inactivity . i could be wrong ; or there could be better explanations that i am not aware.

      the young devavrata comes across as a youth with immense potentials. but his metamorphosis into bhishma and thereafter is rather terrible. those vows appear to have taken away his desire for life ; and yet he clings to the vows and that existence even after they lost their significance. he looks a self imprisoned man in a shell of life.

      another , is that bhishma was not a leader at anytime but a follower all his life. he finds it difficult to take command of ambiguous situations , challenges and demands of life ; and resolve them for the greater good. bhishma perhaps lets his inhibitions and his sense of conventional morals stand in his way of his doing what was right and what was in the best interests of all (dharma). he lets the situations overtake him. he looks at the world around him not from the existential standpoint but from the past .

      he was not a transformational leader, as compared to krishna who had flame-like imagination to inject new meaning , new dimension and perspective into a situation and reveal a fresh structure to life and its possibilities. krishna often took the risk of rejecting conventional morality and explored new avenues to protect larger interests of the dharma.

      but , of course not everyone can be a krishna ..!

      wish you and your family a very happy new-year.

      regards

      .

       
  4. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 5:25 am

    dear srini,

    as usual, an excellent blog with wonderful analysis. when i was young and reading mahabharata, i always use to feel exasperated with the character of bhishma.

    you have rightly anaysed his character. the vow of brahmacharya is an extremely delicate and potent one. perhaps, bhishma was not endowed with the essential spiritual qualities to withstand the onslaught of his hidden lust, but being a kshatriya, he was able to adamently keep his vow. most of his actions seem to stem from this reason. perhaps his lust for women surfaced as a form of vulgar hatered against woman.

    in my youth when i thought about bhishma’s silence when draupati was stripped, i used to feel in a very sarcastic way that the celibate bhishma perhaps wanted to enjoy voyuristic pleasures!

    ram ram

    cvrajan

     
    • sreenivasaraos

      March 21, 2015 at 5:26 am

      dear shri rajan,

      thank you for the comment and for the recommendation.

      you mentioned about bishma’s vows and his other qualities . i posted a response to melody queen’s comment on a similar issue.

      the young devavrata comes across as a youth with immense potentials. but his metamorphosis into bhishma and thereafter is rather terrible. those vows appear to have taken away his desire for life ; and yet he clings to the vows and that existence even after they lost their significance. he looks a self imprisoned man in a shell of life.

      another , is that bhishma was not a leader at anytime but a follower all his life. he finds it difficult to take command of ambiguous situations , challenges and demands of life ; and resolve them for the greater good. bhishma perhaps lets his inhibitions and his sense of conventional morals stand in his way of his doing what was right and what was in the best interests of all (dharma). he lets the situations overtake him. he looks at the world around him not from the existential standpoint but from the past .

      he was not a transformational leader, as compared to krishna who had flame-like imagination to inject new meaning , new dimension and perspective into a situation and reveal a fresh structure to life and its possibilities. krishna often took the risk of rejecting conventional morality and explored new avenues to protect larger interests of the dharma.

      but , of course not everyone can be a krishna ..!

      wish you and your family a very happy new-year.

      regards

       
  5. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 5:28 am

    wow, thats a brilliant post. glad i read this. this reminded me a bit of the book – yuganta. – will read your other post too 🙂 – meera San

    liked the intro and the end parts 🙂

    he, in a way , also represents how inactivity and misplaced sense of loyalty could diminish a mighty one to a miniscule and be brushed aside with disdain. at no risk of retaliation. he brings grief on to himself and unto others around him by his inactivity and at times by needlessly meddling in others’ lives

    he, in a way , also represents how inactivity and misplaced sense of loyalty could diminish a mighty one to a miniscule and be brushed aside with disdain. at no risk of retaliation. he brings grief on to himself and unto others around him by his inactivity and at times by needlessly meddling in others’ lives

     
  6. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 5:29 am

    dear srinivasa rao

    an apt analysis of bhisma indeed. and the additional reasons you put forth in the reply to melody queen complete the picture. yes, even one who watched the mahabharat tv serial with interest cannot but be quizzed by bhishma’s behaviour.

    well, mahabharata was indeed an epic meant to teach subtleties of dharma….so guess the larger message to readers is that one should not be a prisoner of the past and passive follower of circumstances – if that is the case, the greatest of warriors are no good!

    best regards

    vajrapani

     
    • sreenivasaraos

      March 21, 2015 at 5:29 am

      dear vajrapani,
      thank you for the comments and appreciation.
      i no longer am sure .
      please also see evolution of dharma (1,2,3)
      regards

       

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: