The Bhishma Perspective

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?

Thoughts anyone?

Ahh well – here’s picnic update Chapter 44 and Calvin (and Hobbes!)

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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6 thoughts on “The Bhishma Perspective”

  1. You know when I read the post “what if?” , I had this strong urge to say that it was not Gaandhari, but the the other geniuses like Bhishma, Vidura and Dronacharya or may be even Kunti who provided the spark for the fire or otherwise may be had the power to douse it…not to forget the Sutradhaar, Krishna himself. What help was Kunti even when she was the Queen Mother? Vidura who pointed out the rule that a blind could not rule a country accepted the same when Pandu died. If he wouldn’t have interfered in the first place , chances are Kurukshetra wouldn’t have happened.

    My introduction to Mahabharata was through my school text books and then later the same TV show. So my knowledge on the epic is very limited I should say. My little mind used to get confused with all the n number of characters in it…in those days they appeared like stars in the galaxy to me…Infinite!! :)…But I do agree that it did have a lasting effect 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh darn it not Vidura too – another of my favorite characters! But now that you mention it, yeah I guess you do have a point. This does need further study and thought – nevertheless a whole lot of fun isnt it?


  2. Hmm.. This post seems a reflection of your own evolution as well, Dahlia. When one is young, one tends to see the world in black and white terms, admiring absolute values of truth, justice, duty etc. That tends to change and evolve with age, where practicality and reasonable-ness are also valued.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes of course! That is so very true and so well put. And why do i get the feeling I should know you – the words, the writing style seem all too familiar! Care to dispel the suspense?


  3. A good recap of Bhishma’s life and his major decisions. I agree- the serial, cheesy though it was at times, definitely opened up some tough questions about the motivations and actions of some of the characters, and Bhishma’s were particularly brought into focus. I liked Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni’s take of his character as well in Palace of Desire (or was it illusion- the one about Draupadi). Him as a bureaucrat, rule follower is as far as I’ve allowed myself to think. But I don’t believe I’ve ever read, or considered that he subconsciously WANTED to destroy his clan. Now that is quite a thought! I do agree with you, though, that his ‘bheeshma partigya’ was responsible for much of what happened later. I believe I read somewhere that when Bharata created this dynasty his wish was that successors should be brought on based on merit and not birth the first instance of democracy as far as I know. The downfall began when kings started ignoring that edict and naming their (often useless) sons as successors. And then Bhishma to the scene…..oh well!

    btw, Dhritarashtra and not Dhritadashtra?

    Well written!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks Suraja for your take (especially for the typo -it grated and yet I just…sheeee – corrected now. Phew). I agree, ‘wanted’ or actually planned the downfall maybe a bit far-fetched, but then you know how it is – baat niklegi toh door talaq jaayegi 😛


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