Ever since my Amar Chitra Katha days, I have been a diehard fan of Bhishma, the ageless grand old man of the Mahabharata.
The image of the handsome young Debabrata standing tall and proud as he stood there taking his ‘terrible’ oath (though I must admit that as an 8-year old I couldn’t quite comprehend the terribleness of the oath) forcing the gods shower him with flowers and bless him with death at his convenience is permanently etched in my mind’s eye.
Side note: Just in case any of you is not familiar with the terrible oath of Debabrata – never to marry and lifelong service to the throne and whoever sat on it. It is because of this oath that he was henceforth known as Bhishma –terrible or dreadful.
Bhishma’s marksmanship, his victories on the battlefield, his unfaltering dedication to the throne of Hastinapur, his upright moral character, his steadfastness (he refused to give up his oath and marry even when his step-mother Satyavati, who instigated him to take oath, begged him) really wowed me. I couldn’t help but think here was the ideal man – one who followed his self-defined path of dharma and righteousness regardless of any sort of extraneous pressure.
Amba – I faltered. Poor thing to be left alone rejected by one and all for no fault of hers – but I recovered quickly. How dare she vow to kill Bhishma! What was his fault? Why did she curse him? Salwa was the one who put his ego before his love while Bhishma was only following his true path, his vow, how could she expect him to marry her? No, no she didn’t deserve my sympathy. I turned my back on Amba and stared starry-eyed at my hero Bhishma.
A quick recap for those not tuned into the Amba–Bhishma saga: Bhishma, on the orders of his stepmother, duly went on a quest to procure a wife for his half-brother, the young (and not so healthy) king Vichitravirya. He abducted princesses Amba, Ambika and Ambalika of Kashi from their swayamvara. Salwa, who loved Amba, attempted to stop Bhishma but was roundly trounced. Later, when Amba confessed her feelings for Salwa, Bhishma generously sent her back to Salwa. But Salwa, reeling from the bitter blow to his ego, rejected Amba. Upset and disgraced, Amba demanded that Bhishma marry her. But how could he? He was oath-bound. Enraged and humiliated, Amba vowed she wouldn’t rest until she avenged herself against Bhishma. But then, even the mighty Parashuram (avatar of Lord Vishnu) couldn’t defeat Bhishma.
How cool was that! I fell deeper and deeper into hero-worship – I marveled at the way he stood rock steady as things became messy and complicated between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Never once did he falter or deviate from his proclaimed path to remain true to the one who sat on throne of Hastinapur. My heart broke for him when his oath bound him and gagged him. What else could he do but watch while Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavas was insulted, humiliated and disrobed in full public view? How painful was his predicament, his curse – the price he had to pay for his greatness.
There was no let up for him – he could only watch in helpless agony from his bed of arrows as his kith and kin were slaughtered on the battlefield. But duty was duty, he hung on grimly till the very bitter end, even though taking advantage of his boon of ‘death at will’ he could have chosen to give all the suffering pain and misery an easy miss. But he chose not to. How much greater could anyone be?
Hungry for more, I switched from the written word to the audio-visual mode – Mahabharata, the tele-serial that brought India to a mesmerized standstill every Sunday morning. Bhishma was just as great as I had pictured him to be. I watched the scenes unfold with bated breath and unblinking attention. Until the Draupadi disrobing episode.
Wide-eyed, I watched the publicly humiliated Draupadi scream, rave and rant, and horror of horrors, even accuse Grand old Bhishma of being an unmanly, unrighteous, cowardly stooge to the throne of Hastinapur.
Worse, Bhishma just sat there, head bowed, defenseless.
There was no denying it – my idol had feet of clay. He had no sense of right or wrong! He was just a rule follower. And for all his ‘greatness’, he had no power or guts to even call a spade a spade. His duty was to the throne and the one who sat on it – Dhritarashtra. So why didn’t he pull up Duryodhana or put a stop to the game when it was being played out? What was his loyalty to the son of the king?
The ill-fated game of dice was a well-publicized event and it was apparently an open secret that cheating was going on – yet Bhishma didn’t say anything. Not even to Yudhishtir, who surely would not have disobeyed his revered grandfather and desisted from playing?
When Yudhishtir staked his brothers or himself, Bhishma could have cited ‘rules’ and said that one who has lost himself had also lost the right to put his wife as stake?
The silence of the stalwarts of kingdom of Hastinapur – Bhishma, Dronacharya, Kripacharya is not only inexplicable but also untenable. Only a deep-rooted fear of being banished from the kingdom and losing their rights as favored members of the court could explain their behavior. Or is there something I am missing?
I sincerely hope so!
But that is not all – Bhishma was the one who chose (or rather ‘won’) Gandhari as Dhritarashtra’s wife (with disastrous consequences). Seeing Bhishma’s mighty army, Subala, the king of Gandhara had no choice but agree to give his daughter’s hand in marriage to the blind stand-in king of Hastinapur. In fact there are stories of Gandhara being attacked by Bhishma with the imprisonment of King Subala and his 100 sons – all died, except Shakuni who swore revenge against Bhishma for the injustice meted to his beloved sister Gandhari.
That brings me to some terrible questions (and dreadful answers) – could Bhishma be the root cause of the bloody battle of Kurukshetra? Could he have prevented the mindless massacre of his kinsmen?
And dare I say it – was it a subconscious (or conscious) plan on his part to destroy the very clan that forced him into celibacy and relinquish his right to the throne of Hastinapur?
A few (more) thoughts for the day
“A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.” ― Robertson Davies
“Sometimes your light shines so bright that it blinds people from seeing who you really are.” ― Shannon L. Alder
“There are no facts, only interpretations.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
“Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, “What else could this mean?” ― Shannon L. Alder
Until next time 🙂
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