BHISHMA IN THE MAHABHARATA;A CHARATER ANALYSIS.
Abstract- Epics play an important role in shaping the attitude and guiding the people. The characters in the Indian epic Mahabharata continues to be role model for millions of the Indians. However instead of blindly following, the characters are to be analyzed critically. Hero worshipping to someone (living, dead of fictional) can be dangerous. Bhishma, one of the important characters in the Mahabharata is being considered as a role model by many. This essay is an attempt of bringing out some aspects of his personality and life.
The earth is an interesting place because we all are different than each others. Not only the individuals differ from each others, within an individual also there are different layers of personality which are difficult to understand. We cannot paint the canvas of life entirely black or white. It has different shades and many times these shades cannot be expressed in words. Mahabharata tries to capture this eternal drama of human life very effectively. ‘Bhagavad Gita’ which is a part of Mahabharata tries to explain this complicities and intricacies of human nature as an interplay of three ‘Gunas’ (qualities)1 i.e. ‘Sattavik’ (Good), ‘Rajasik’ (Passion) and ‘Tamasik’ (Dullness). All these ‘Gunas’ are present in everybody in different combinations. At a particular time one of the ‘Guna’ predominates and under its influence we think and behave.
Under the influence of the ‘Sattavik’, man thinks good thoughts and performs good deeds, which brings peace and happiness. Under the influence of the ‘Rajasik’, man is restless and propelled into action with the selfish desires and the ‘Tamasik’ creates dullness and inertia. As these ‘Gunas’ are present in us in different combinations, we find that the characters in the Mahabharata behaves differently at different times under their influence. An extremely good person like Yudhishthira comes under the influence of ‘Rajasik’ and ‘Tamasik’ and indulges in gambling in spite of the warning and looses everything including his wife.
The present essay is an attempt to study this play of ‘Sattava’, ‘Raja’ and ‘Tama’ through the character of Bhishma, one of the important characters of the ‘Mahabharata’.
Bhshma’s sacrifice for his father- Bhishma, the sage of sacrifice and selfless service, very brave and upright, is considered as an ideal to be followed by many. He was born to King Shantanu and Ganga. He was named as Devavrata. Originally, he was a Vasu2, who descended on the earth alongwith his other seven brothers due to the curse. All his brothers escaped from the earth as their transgression was not very severe. But Devavrata was compelled to stay for very long years due to his sin. The message here is that the earth is not a very pleasant place and those who are sinner had to stay on the earth.
Devavrata grows up, becomes a fine warrior and being the only son of king Shantanu was his successor. He was very popular among the people of the Hastinapur2. But destiny had something else in store. Meanwhile Ganga, Devavrata’s mother left Shantanu.
One day Shantanu got infatuated with a Nishada3 girl, Satyavati. But Satyavati’s father put a condition that the future son born to Satyavati will be the king after Shantanu. Shantanu was not willing to deprive his capable son and came back aggrieved
When Devavrata came to know about this, he took initiative and himself went to the father of Satyavati. He promised the father of Satyawati that the son of Shantanu and Satyawati will become the king after Shantanu. Even this did not satisfy Satyawati’s father and he expressed fear that may be Devavrata’s sons will demand kingdom. At this Devavrata took vow that he will not marry and so nullified any possibility of conflict in future. This vow of reaming celibate throughout the life was considered as a terrible vow and so he came to be called as Bhisma, meaning the terrible.
Certain questions arise out of this act of Bhishma. As a prince did he had a right to decide that who will become king after the present king? It was a spontaneous emotional reaction of a young man. Kingship was a position of trust and not a private property that one can leave his share to somebody. Devavrata was wise, learned, very capable administer and a fine warrior. He had all the qualities of becoming an excellent king. But by his excess of dedication and desire of sacrifice for the pleasure of his father he deprived the people of the kingdom of Hastinapur of his capable leadership and that to for the sake of the lust of his aging father. Taking into consideration the age of Devavarata, Shantanu must have been of considerable age that time. He already had his share of joy and happiness in life and during his ripe age he was not able to keep his infatuation under control. Self denial for higher purpose is a noble act, but self denial for the lust of the aging father? Bhishma was extremely idolized for his sacrifice, but if one look from the different angle, he seems to be exploited for his sincerity and dedication by his selfish relations. We find numerous such evidences in the Mahabharata.
Amba Episode- When his half brother Vichitravirya grew up, Bhishma took the responsibility of finding brides for him. He went to the Swyamvara4 of the daughters of the king of Kashi uninvited and abducted the three daughters of the king. He also fought a terrible war with the assembled suitors of the princess. Among the suitors of the princess was king Salva, who was in love with Amba, the eldest of the princess of Kashi. He was also defeated by Bhishma.
His abduction of these princesses for his half-brother, spoiled the life of the eldest princess Amba, who was also in love with King Salva. Vichtravirya refused to marry her, as she had already given her heart to somebody else. Salva also rejected her as she was won by Bhishma after defeating him. She appealed Bhishma to marry her. But here his oath of celibacy came in between and he refused. She even appealed to Parshurama, but he also failed to give justice to her. After failing in all the attempts she finally immolated herself. What is important, self imposed high ideals or life of an individual?
It was a practice among the ‘Kshatriyas’ to win a girl after the contest. But Bhishma winning the girls for his half-brother appears to be an exception. He should have allowed his brother to find a match for himself. Being a ‘Brahmachari’ why he should have ventured into a ‘Swyamvara’ and invited the trouble? During abduction Bhishma defeated many kings and even after this Salva challenged Bhishma to dual, putting his life to great risk. Here at least Bhishma should have realized that, Salva have a special tender feeling for Amba and it will be injustice to forcibly take her away to marry her to somebody else. Later during the ‘Rajsuya’ yagya5 Sishupala6 criticizes Bhishma for this act. He also says that everybody was aware about the love between Amba and Salva and Bhishma still kidnapped her. The journey from Kashi to Hastinapur in chariot must have taken a couple of days. During the journey also Bhishma seems to have not made his intension clear to the princess that they were being carried to be married to Vicitravirya. Probably the princes were under the impression that they were going to married to Bhishma. But when after reaching Hastinapur, Amba realized that she will be married to good for nothing Vichitrvirya, she directly reveled her love for Salva and Bhishma sent her to Salva. Had he reveled his intention of marrying them to Vichitrvirya at Kashi itself, probably the situation would have not become that complicated. However probably he became conscious about his mistake and thereafter he settled the matches of his family member through other means than abducting a girl.
Gandhari- Gandhari, the princess of Gandhar was also deceived. She became aware of the fact that she is going to married to a blind prince only after coming to Hastinapur. Here also it was Bhishma who took the initiative for this alliance.
Insult of Draupadi- At the time of insult of Draupadi in the assembly of Kurus, Bhishma remained quiet. Was it not his responsibility as an elder of the family to prevent this heinous crime? Instead he hides behind the argument that ‘Dharma’ is subtle and throws the ball in Udhishitira’s court.
Role during the Great war- During the preparation of the Great War, his attempts of stopping the war seem to be half hearted. Why did he accept the position of the commander-in- chief of the Kaurava army? He should have gone into retirement. He had lived a long life, served and protected the kingdom and race of Kurus for many years.
If he had promised to protect the kingdom to his father, there was no threat to the Kuru kingdom from outside. Whether the Kaurava wins or the Pandava wins, it would have been the decedents of the Kuru, who would have sat on the throne of Hastinapur. If not retirement he should have at least remain neutral in the war like Balrama. After the war he could have come back again to serve the throne of Hastinapur.
His heart was with the Pandavas, but he felt duty bound to serve the Kauravas. Why? Why he did not openly supported the Pandavas? Probably that might have created panic in the heart of Dhritrashtra and Duryodhana. Bhagavad Gita says,
“Yad-yad acharti sresthas
tad-tad eve taro janah
sa yet parmanam kurute
lokas tad anuvartate”
(Whatsoever a great man does, the same is done by others as well. Whatever standard he sets, the world follows.) (‘ Bhagavd Gita’ S. Radhakrishnan P.140.)
Had Bhishma remained absent from the war, probably his example might have been followed by the others like Dronacharya, who was obliged to him. In the absence of these two valiant and experienced warriors, the war would have been much less destructive and probably there would have been no war at all. Probably it was due to the towering personalities like Bhishma, that many other people supported Kauravas.
He loved the Pandavas, but felt duty bound to serve Duryodhana and finally achieved nothing positive. The futility of his life is captured by poet Dinkar when he says,
“ Pyar Pandavopar manse, kauravoki seva tanse,
Sadh payega kaun kam is bikhari hui lagan se”(Hindi)
(Love for the Pandavas and the service for the Kauravas, what can be achieved by this divided loyalty) (Dinkar ‘Kurushetra’ Rajpal and Sons, 2003, P. 50) ( English translation mine)
Conclusion- Bhishma’s life is full of many contrasts. In spite of being ‘Brahmcahri’, (celibate) he was attached to the kingdom. Not for the sake of personal enjoyment, but to serve it. He never sat on the throne, but always wielded the power. It was only when Duryodhana had grown up that his authority has diminished considerably. The main councilors of Duryodhana were Shakuni and Karna. But Bhishma refuses to the reinsgo from his hand and as a result gets into ego clashes repeatedly with Karna.
Person who lives life like an average mortal are checked easily, as they are aware of their own limitations. But people, who become larger than life, like living legends, are in a position to do greater harm not only by wrong action but by inaction as well. As Bhishma’s inaction during the episode of Draupadi’s ‘Vastraharan’ shows. By not taking strong stand against the policies of Duryodhana, Bhishma stands partly responsible for the war and destruction. Unreasonable devotion to our own perception of duty can sometimes turn into an evil.
By trying to understand the characters in the epics we can understand the peculiarities of the human behavior around us. Who had not seen capable people exploited by flattering their ego!
1. Human body is believed to have these three ‘gunas’ i.e. qualities and the God is believed to be beyond this and so is called, ‘Trigunatit’.
2. Vasus are demigods in the Indian mythology.
3. Hastinapur, the capital of king Shantanu.
4. Nishada- They were probably a tribe living on the periphery of the Aryan settlements. Other famous Nishada in the Mahabharata is Ekalavya.
5. Swyamvara- A system during which a bride could choose her life partner.
6. A sacred ceremony performed by king Yudhishthir to proclaim the victory over other kings.
7. Sishupala, a character in the Mahabharata, who was killed by Krishna.
1. Ganguli K.M., ‘The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa’, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2008.
2. S. Radhakrishnan, “The Bhagavadgita” HarperCollins, New Delhi, 2004.
3. ‘Mahabharata’, Gita press, Gorakhpur.( Hindi)
4. C. Rajgopalchari, ‘Mahabharata’, Bhavan’s, 2009.
5. ‘Janeshwari’, Sakhre, Nana Maharaj, Sarathi Prakashan, Pune,2001, ( Marathi)
6. Karve Irawati, ‘Yuganta’ , Disha Books,Hrderabad,2008.
7. Dinkar, ‘Rashmirathi’ Rajpal and Sons, N.Delhi, 2003.(Hindi)
8. Dinkar, ‘Kurushetra’ Lokbharati, Allahabad,2005. (Hindi)
9. Sharma TRS, ‘Reflections and variations on The Mahabharata’, Sahitya Akademi, 2009.
10. Das Gurcharan ‘The difficulty of being good’ Penguin, N.Delhi 2009.
Dr. Ravi Khangai
Asst. Prof. & HOD
Department of History
Ambedkar College, Fatikroy
Dist- North Tripura
E mail- firstname.lastname@example.org
Personal Information- Presently working as Assistant Professor (History), at Ambedkar College, Fatikroy, North Tripura, Tripura-799290.
Graduation from Punjab University, Chandigarh, M.A., Ph.D. and B.Ed from Jiwaji university, Gwalior (M.P.)