Essay: Bhishma Pitamah – a life of fruitless sacrifice by Neera Kashyap

Exploring all that Bhishma did to order and protect the lives of two generations of Kurus, Neera Kashyap dissects his character to bring out the finer nuances.

Bhishma Pitamah, the grand patriarch of the Kuru clan in the epic of the Mahabharata lived a long life spanning five generations. From scholarly estimates, it appears he may have lived for over a hundred years, for he enjoyed the boon from his father King Shantanu of choosing his own time of death – ichcha mrityu. He earned this boon by making the most astounding vows: giving up his claim to the throne and taking a life-long vow of celibacy so that there would be no claimants to the throne from his own bloodline.

As the only surviving son of his father by the goddess Ganga he was named Devavrata.  Due to his mother’s care, he was thoroughly grounded in the political, mental, Vedic and spiritual sciences under renowned sages such as Brihaspati, Shukracharya, Vasishtha, Markandeya, Sanatkumara and Parshurama, and gifted celestial weapons by Indra, the king of the gods himself – hence was eminently suited to be heir-apparent to the throne. Ganga disappeared after fulfilling certain conditions for her life on earth, entrusting him to his father, Shantanu. As had happened earlier with Ganga, Shantanu became intoxicated with yearning for Satyavati, royal-born but reared by a fisherman, whose condition for marriage was that only her heirs be inheritors to the throne. Unable to meet these conditions, yet deeply unrequited, Shantanu became depressed. On enquiry, Devavrata discovered the root cause and, for his father’s happiness, vowed celibacy and abdicated all claims to the throne – bhishamna pratigya – earning himself the title Bhishma (one who undertakes a fierce vow), also earning his grateful father’s boon of choosing his own time of death. 

Once Shantanu married Satyavati, the courtiers and commoners of the kingdom expressed their discontent to Bhishma at losing him as an eminently deserving crown prince. To appease them, Bhishma took a third vow: he would always be there to serve the throne of Hastinapur, his loyalty sworn to whoever reigned as king. 

Bhishma’s sacrifice has its roots in his ancestry. Among the earlier kings of the Kuru clan was King Yayati who was cursed, owing to illicit lust, to lose his youth and become decrepit with immediate effect. This led him to beg his youngest son Puru to exchange his youth with his own decrepitude. Puru obliges and sows the seed of the ‘Yayati complex’ – the glorification of the son who sacrifices his own happiness for the sexual and emotional happiness of the father. While Yayati eventually returns Puru’s youth to him and Puru reigns as a supreme world emperor, Bhishma is doomed to lead a long life without a family to call his own and tied in loyalty to a throne, regardless of its cause – right or wrong. 

There is a backstory to this: Bhishma’s mother Ganga, owing to a misdemeanour in heaven, had been sent back to earth. En route she met eight Vasus (Vedic deities associated with the elements). They too had been cursed to be reborn on earth for stealing Sage Vasishtha’s wish-fulfilling cow, Kamadhenu. Ganga agrees to mother them on earth and to kill them on birth so they need suffer only the shortest lifespan on earth. As a condition to her marriage to Shantanu who desires her deeply, she enjoins him never to question her actions, failing which she would forsake him. On birth, she drowns seven of the eight Vasus. Not knowing her backstory and unable to take her inexplicable actions anymore, Shantanu protests when she sets out to drown their eighth child – Devavrata. As one of the eight Vasus in his previous incarnation, it is he who, on his wife’s plea, had proactively led the others into stealing the sage’s cow and hence doomed to suffer the curse of a long and unfulfilling life. 

At the heart of the tragedy of the Mahabharata is the human weakness of uncontrolled sexual desire that first propels Shantanu to agree to Ganga’s conditions and later to Satyavati’s. Neither of Satyavati’s sons – Chitrangada and Vichitravirya are able to sire children. Chitrangada is killed before he can marry. Vichitravirya dies on his wedding night.  Satyavati’s ambition to see the Kuru lineage continue unbroken is so strong that she devises an ingenious plan: she gets her son, Sage Vyasa – begotten through a sexual encounter with a sage while still unmarried – to beget her grandsons from her two royal daughters-in-law. Through planned subterfuge, their maid also begets a child. Thus are born, Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura. The Yayati complex of honouring an aging father’s desire above the natural march of generations sows the seeds of weakness and division in the very core of a ruling family. Born from Dhritarashtra are the hundred Kauravas and from Pandu the five Pandavas and the stage is set for an enmity between them on issues of property and kingship that will last their stormy lifetimes. 

Quite early in the epic we observe Bhishma Pitamah’s inflexibility with his vows.  Once it becomes clear to Satyavati that, because there are no heirs to rule, Bhishma’s vows of celibacy and throne abdication become meaningless she appeals to Bhishma to take up the kingship and re-establish the line. Or at least beget children by her daughters-in-law. Bhishma refuses, rigidly adhering to his vows – irrelevant though they be, consenting instead to Vyasa – Satyavati’s illegitimate son – being asked to father heirs. 

The issue of the abduction of Satyavati’s three daughters-in-law – Ambika, Ambalika and Amba so they marry Vichitravirya has raised considerable dust in literary criticism. Irawati Karve, a celebrated and distinguished anthropologist has explored in her book, Yuganta: the end of an epoch the human aspects of the characters in this lofty epic. She suggests that for Bhishma it was important to get the very young Vichitravirya to marry as soon as possible and beget heirs. Though their kingdom of Hastinapur receives no invitation, Bhishma rides royally to the svayamvara (the ancient practice of a woman of noble birth choosing the worthiest groom from among the invited suitors) of the three princesses of Kashi, and abducts them to serve as brides in the Kuru kingdom of Hastinapur. Here, Amba reveals her commitment to marry King Shalva so she is sent back to him. Embittered by his defeat at the hands of Bhishma at the svyamvara, Shalva refuses her. Amba challenges Bhishma’s action of abducting her since he had vowed never to be with a woman, placing on him the onus of marrying her. Frozen again by his vows, Bhishma refuses – leaving the slighted, dishonoured and shelterless Amba to commit suicide, impassioned in the resolve that in her next birth she would be the instrument of his destruction. 

Taking further examples of the ways in which Bhishma arranged the later marriages of the impotent Pandu to Kunti and Madri, and the blind Dhritarashtra to Gandhari, Karve writes,

“How all these women must have suffered! How they must have cursed Bhishma! He alone was responsible for their humiliation. Bhishma was the active leader of the Kuru clan, the one who wielded authority. In his zeal to perpetuate his house he had humiliated and disgraced these royal women.”

Other arguments suggest that carrying away the three Kashi princesses was a perfectly respectable custom among the Kshatriyas of the day. In a svayamvara, it was considered superior among the virtuous to carry away the bride/s after defeating other Kshatriyas through valour. Though uninvited, Bhishma had stood before the assembly to explain precisely what he was going to do, challenging the assembled suitors to stop him if they could. At the time, he was also unaware of the secret love between Amba and Shalva, though Shalva had stood up to fight Bhishma only to suffer defeat. It is likely that the status of women in Vedic society had already deteriorated to such an extent that a patriarch like Bhishma could claim them as trophies in a tournament only to use them as child-bearing machines. 

Writes Karve:

“We cannot say that Bhishma committed all this cruelty deliberately. It seems he was indifferent to it. Did this indifference arise out of his obsession with one goal – the perpetuation of the Kuru line? He had sacrificed himself completely….When a man does something for himself his actions are within limits – limits set by the jealous scrutiny of others. But when he sets out to sacrifice himself for the good of others, the normal limits vanish. He can become completely ruthless in carrying out his objectives.” 

Bhishma’s actions must also be seen in the context of a decline in the status of women apparent in the Kuru ancestry itself: King Yayati’s daughter Madhavi is offered to four men by her own father so she can source from the kings eight hundred horses for Sage Galava to gift to his guru, Vishwamitra. As she can raise only six hundred horses from three kings, she is offered to Sage Galava himself to beget a son which will equal the remaining two hundred horses!

Yet there are women in the Mahabharata such as Ganga and Satyavati who have sufficient individuality to lay down conditions for their marriage. We also know women like Kunti and Draupadi – wife to the Pandava brothers – to have strong inner resources built by enduring great swings of fortune from palace to forest; from safety to danger; from royalty to bondage. Hence when a strong and dynamic Draupadi is dragged after the famous dice game before an assembly of men and grievously dishonoured, it is difficult to condone the silence of Bhishma and other elders as they struggle with their own shame and helplessness, yet stick to dharma in its strictly technical interpretation.

Elders Bhishma, Gurus Kripa and Drona, King Dhritarashtra and his younger brother, the wise Vidura are all present at the dice game. The Kaurava crown prince Duryodhana’s uncle Shakuni contrives to play on his nephew’s behalf – he could not lose as the dice had been imbued by the magic of his father’s dying wish – it would turn whichever way he wanted. Pandava King Yudhishtira with a fatal weakness for gambling – a solitary flaw in his otherwise famed adherence to truth – loses everything:  livestock and grain, land and servants, gold and jewellery, his brothers, himself, his wife. When a doorkeeper is sent to fetch Draupadi before the assembly, she asks the famous question, “Go ask my gambler husband if he staked himself first or me. For if he staked himself first and lost himself first, how can he still have any rights over me?’ Message conveyed, when the doorkeeper is sent back, her appeal is to the elders, “Ask the elders if it is morally appropriate for a woman, the royal daughter-in-law at that, to be staked and lost so in a game of dice?’ 

Menstruating and clothed in a single garment, Draupadi is dragged by her streaming hair by Duryodhana’s brother, Dusshasana and flung at Duryodhana’s feet. Bent on stripping her of all pride, Duryodhana bares his thigh and invites her to sit on it. He then orders his Pandava ‘slave brothers’ to be stripped of their clothes, and finally, for Draupadi to be stripped of hers. Helpless, even before elders, she seeks divine help from her cousin and lord, Krishna – finally emerging through divine intervention fully robed, her honour intact. It is when she pronounces that she would not tie her hair till it is bathed in Dusshasana’s blood that the blind father, King Dhritarashtra hobbles up to her, appeals to her to withdraw her curse, expresses shame at the events and grants her three boons. Throughout the episode Bhishma maintains silence, a royal daughter-in-law’s honour eschewed to uphold the rules of a game wherein if losers lose, they lose all.

It is ironic that Bhishma’s nemesis is Shikhandi – born a woman but raised a man by her father King Dhrupad who has the foreknowledge that Shikhandi, later in life, would be able to exchange her sex and become male. This is exactly what happens. The important fact here is that Shikhandi is Amba re-born, re-born with the sole objective of destroying Bhishma. 

During the Mahabharata war between the Kauravas and Pandavas, Bhishma is offered the commandership of the Kaurava army by Duryodhana, a command he accepts with alacrity despite being anywhere over ninety years old. Yet his heart is not in the battle, knowing he is fighting the wrong cause, yet wishing to make last desperate efforts to stop the fratricidal conflict. For his half-heartedness, he is repeatedly rebuked by Duryodhana. With the war see-sawing in a stalemate, it is clear to the Pandavas that Bhishma must be removed so the battle can take a decisive turn. 

There are different versions on what happens next. In one, it is on the ninth night of the Mahabharata war that the Pandavas go to Bhishma and ask how he can be killed. Weary, he indicates that they have Shikhandi fight him. In another version, it is Krishna – Guru and guide to the Pandavas – who devises a strategy which circumvents the rule that a woman cannot be killed in the male preserve of the battlefield. 

Since Bhishma can die only through his own wish, Krishna devises a way to immobilize him: the most skilled of the Pandava warriors Arjuna is to ride into battle on his chariot behind Shikhandi, shoot arrows from behind him at Bhishma who was bound not to raise arms against a woman. When this plan unfolds on the tenth day of battle, Bhishma rages against adharma, refusing to fight a woman. 

As Arjuna’s charioteer, Krishna retorts: “You see her as a woman because she was born with a female body. You see her as a woman because in her heart she is Amba. But I see her as a man because that is how her father raised her. I see her as a man because she has a Yaksha’s manhood with which he has consummated his marriage. Whose point of view is right, Bhishma?”

When Bhishma declares his to be the right view, Krishna points famously to the flaws in Bhishma’s character:

“You are always right, are you not, Bhishma? When you allowed your old father to remarry, when you abducted brides for your weak brother, when you clung to future generation after future generation like a leech, trying to set things right. There is always a logic you find to justify your point of view. So now, Shikhandi is a woman – an unworthy opponent. That’s your view, not Shikhandi’s. He wishes to fight you.”

(Source: “On Krishna’s chariot stands Shikhandi”, by Devdutt Pattanaik, Sunday Midday, Mumbai, 12 July 2009)

Standing behind Shikhandi, Arjuna shoots hundreds of arrows at Bhishma. They rip through the great patriarch’s body. He falls to the ground from his chariot, arrows piercing every inch of his torso, suspending him between earth and sky.

Bhishma lies on this bed of arrows for fifty six days. The sun was in the south and the moon on the wane – indicators of inauspiciousness. He had to wait for an auspicious time to die, till after the winter solstice when the sun rose closer to the Pole star and the moon waxed in the bright half of the lunar month. As he lies immobilized, his eyes can see the carnage, hear the screams of warriors, and later the laments of widows of the Kuru clan. In this state, he gives Yudhishtira – the victorious king of the Pandavas who ruled righteously for the next 36 years – the complete theoretical knowledge of statesmanship!

It is true that Bhishma did his all to order and protect the lives of two generations of Kurus – bringing up their sons, finding brides for them, looking after their welfare, educating and training them in the skills of Kshatriya Hood. He loved his grand-nephews and was loved and respected by them, most deeply by Arjuna. But by the time Duryodhana had grown into his role as crown prince, Bhishma had little part to play so could have retired. Blessed by an ability to choose his own time of death, he could have chosen to die, his role done. Instead, he refused to detach himself from his avowed role of guide and protector. He refused to concede that he had no effective role to play in sorting out the intense hostilities that the Kauravas harboured against the Pandavas which led to the most violent of wars. Instead, he probably believed that just as he was immune to death until he wished it, he was immune to life’s dynamics – as the avowed taker of vows and of sacrifices on behalf of others. This immunity made him rigid and attached to his causes – unrighteous though they be – reducing his empathy for people and hardening his indifference to everything but his own vows. Unfortunately, despite his devotion to Krishna who was flexible in his observance of rules and able to bend them in the cause of a larger justice, Bhishma remained mired in his father’s example: the domination of elders long after they have ceased to dominate effectively. In fact the very basis for Bhishma’s vows was faulty – based on an aging father’s sexual desires – a man who was not just a lover but a king and a father responsible to his subjects and his lineage. But this is part of the Yayati complex that Bhishma inherited from his ancestry – the very germ that culminates in the bloodbath of the Mahabharata.

Contributor’s Bio

Neera Kashyap has worked on health, social and environmental communications. As an author, she has published a book of stories for young adults titled, ‘Daring to dream’ and contributed to five prize-winning anthologies for children. As a literary writer of short fiction, poetry, essays and book reviews, her work has appeared in international journals (Setumag & Virtual Verse from USA; Clarendon Publishing House and The Poet from U.K.); in South Asian journals (Kitaab, Mad in Asia Pacific & Papercuts); and in several Indian journals including Usawa, Out of Print, Narrow Road, Erothanatos  and in an anthology, ‘Hibiscus’ on poems that heal and empower. She lives in Delhi.

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