Tag Archives: Bhishma

Bhishma – A Life Unfulfilled

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 minuscule 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 , with the approval of his step mother  – Satyavathya mate sthitha . 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 ” One conquered by  another , O fair one, and released from his house , I do not receive. Go back to Bhishma and do as he commands ” . Here , Salva’s rejection was not for fear of Bhishma ; but , was due his false sense of pride that was badly hurt ; and even by spiteful jealousy ( adigrha-darsina) . The author of  Mahabharata , in fact , condemns Salva for unreasonably deserting Amba who was in a desperate situation ( evam sambhashamanam tu …pratatya jata)

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. ` You took me by force. According to the Kashtriya code of conduct you necerrrily have to marry me. Therefore, `Marry me,” she demanded, “ and, set things right.” Bhishma, of course, had taken the vow of Brahmacharya and insisted on preserving his celibacy intact.

For six long years, Amba doggedly ( parinishaya) 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.

[One version mentions that Amba did about twelve years of severe , determined penance ( tapase dhrta samkalpa) on the banks of the river Bahuda  (perhaps Jhelum ..?) , in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is said; the god Skanda assured her that in due course she would be the cause of Bhishma’s death.]

Finally, 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.

Ganga Bhishma

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.


There is an interesting comparison between Bhishma of Mahabharata and Vibhishana (younger brother of Ravana) of Ramayana.  In either case, the person who occupied the throne they served tried to violate the chastity of a pure and a virtuous woman. Both those kings (Ravana and Duryodhana) had sunk to the lowest level of adharma. Both Vibhishana and Bhishma strongly disagreed with the acts of their respective kings. But, it was Vibhishana who had the courageous detachment to disassociate himself from the immoral regime of his king, his brother, and to join the forces of Dharma which his brother opposed. Vibhishana‘s unpopular decision was open to controversies and even to ridicule. Yet, Vibhishana was steadfast; he stood by his decision which according to him was the right one, by all counts.

In contrast, Bhishma the old-guard needlessly chose to cling to what he did not approve, because of his misplaced sense of loyalty. And, he eventually brought grief on to himself and unto others around him by his indecision and inactivity.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, too listless and disillusioned, scarcely had time or opportunity to put into practice what he learnt from the savant on a death bed of arrows.


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.


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Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Mahabharata


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