Tuesday, 8 March 2016

What the Indian tradition expect from the elders? Bhishma’s self denial in the Mahabharata

Abstract- Indian epic, the Mahabharata is believed to have taken written form from 400 B.C. to 400 A.D. Though stories and legends that had found place in the epic were in circulation much before that. As the stories and the legends in the epic had gone through long process of transformations, it has achieved a kind of timelessness and acquired eternal relevance for the human life. Probably that is the reason that even though the text is more than two thousand five years old, it’s attraction refuses to die down. As the epic was not composed by one person, it has become more representative of the opinions coming from the different segments of the society.
As the epic had developed over centuries, the characters have gathered mass along with its growth. The qualities that the poets and bards felt noble were attributed to the characters that were projected as ideals. Bhishma, the grandfather of the epic appears to be personification of different values. The prominent virtues of Bhishma’s character are celibacy and self-sacrifice, signifying that these are the qualities expected from the elders.
This paper explores the portrayal of Bhishma in the epic and tries to analyze the expectations of the traditional Indian society from their elders. It also questions that by expecting the elders to be self-sacrificing and self-denying, are we not doing injustice to them?
Key words- Brahmacharya (celibacy), Successor, Vow, Conflict, Futile.
Who is the hero of the Mahabharata? It is difficult to point out at one particular character, but Bhishma, the grand old man of the epic, can be one of the contestants. Brahmacharya (celibacy) and self denial are eulogized in Indian tradition and we find the personification of these virtues in Bhishma. As epic have a profound influence on the Indian mind and plays an important role in conditioning the young minds it is imperative to take a critical look at the portrayal of Bhishma’s character as he is often projected as an ideal to be followed. 
Bhishma’s series of sacrifices starts when he is quite young. The epic makes him to sacrifice the pleasure of youth, so that his father, King Shantanu can marry youthful Satyavati, who is also ‘Gandhavati’ i.e. the sweet smelling one. Shantanu, in his old age gets infatuated with Satyavati and proposes to marry her. But her father puts a condition that it will be her son who will succeed Shantanu and not Devavrata (that was the original name of Bhishma), who was the son of Shantanu and Ganga. Shantanu did not agree, but he keeps pinning for Satyavati. When Devavrata, gets a hint about it, he voluntarily renounces his right over the throne of Hastinapur as successor. But Satyvati’s father, who cleverly wants to make the life of his daughter and her sons secure, further takes an advantage of the emotional state of Devavarata and furtherer extracts promises from him that he will not marry to avoid any conflict between his sons and sons of Satyavati. He also promises that he will protect whoever sits on the throne of Hastinapur. The text describes that when he takes these pledges, sound ‘Bhishma’ is echoed from the sky and flowers are showered. (Pandeya, Adi Parva 100:98) Bhishma means terrible. The sound symbolizing that this kind of sacrifices are rare! He is refereed as Bhishma hereafter. Here the epic in the beginning itself makes Bhishma a fatherly figure. The role of father and son is reversed. Instead of aged father, who had already tested the pleasures of life and who is usually expected to make sacrifices to ensure the happiness of children, it was young Devavrata who was made to sacrifice the pleasures of life so that his father can marry again. Thus the old age seems to be superimposed on Bhishma when he was quite young and he continues on the same path throughout his long life. He continues to arrange marriages of the male members of his family like he had done for his own father. He goes on fighting for protecting the throne of Hastinapur till the very end of his life.
Bishma is praised and hailed for his sacrifices through the epic. His acts of denial of sensual pleasure to himself and voluntarily relinquishing the right to succeed to the throne of Hastinapur are reflective of the traditional value system in Indian tradition, where ‘Brahmacharya’ i.e. celibacy and ‘Aparigraha’ i.e. not being possessive is considered as high virtues. But his Brahmacharya and Aparigraha was not for some grater spiritual gain but it was done for providing pleasure to somebody. Iravati Karve says about him,
The bachelor who had no children of his own, spent his whole life in caring for other people’s children. Right up to the last, he remained entangled” (Karve,p.12)
Though Bhishma’s voluntarily relinquishing the throne is highly eulogized, but by doing that he had deprived the people of his kingdom of his capable leadership and that to for satisfying the lust of his aged father. His promise to Satyavati’s father that he will protect anybody who sits on the throne of Hastinapur also binds him to throne and he think that he can not escape even though he knew that the he is siding with the evil by fighting the war for Duryodhana. (Rukmani, p.148) Duryodhana knowing Bhishma’s nature also counted on his support and went ahead with the preparation of war. Gautam Chatterjee writes,
“….Duryodhana closed all avenues of peace, knowing that Bhisma would accept the role of commander-in-chief. Armed with this assurance, he thought he needed no counsel of peace. For victory was guaranteed to be his, by virtue of the fact that Bhisma could not be defeated” (Rukmani, p.155)
Though serving faithfully Bhishma did not asserts himself at the right time in the court and thus  creates a political vacuum, which was filled by Shakuni, Karna and Duryodhana. He was more concerned with honoring the exact words of promise that he made to Satyavati’s father rather than the spirit in which he made them. (Rukmani, p.152)  
Chatterjee argues that Bhishma’s adhering to his promise had in fact defeated the purpose for which the promise was made i.e. protection of throne. He knew beforehand that the Pandavas protected by Krishna will not be defeated, but was not able to convince this to Duryodhana. Duryodhana as stated prepared for war counting on the support of Bhishma and this finally brought destruction of the Kuru clan. (Rukmani, p.158)
Thus Bhishma’s silence and helplessness that he imposed upon himself during the different acts of transgressions by Duryodhana slowly brought the destruction of the very clan that he was pledged to protect. Bhishma confesses his helplessness just before the war when he says,
“Arthasya puruso daso”(Bhismaparvan 41.36)
(Man is slave to wealth)                                                            
Bhishma’s responsibility of match making seems to land him in trouble and also create trouble for others. Uninvited, he storms into the ‘Swyamvara’ of the Kashi princes and after defeating many kings and princes assembled there forcibly carry the three princes to be married to  his half-brother Vichitrvirya. (Buitenen, The Book of the Beginning, 96)
In the next generation he ensures that Gandhari, the Princess of Gandhara, who had got the boon of hundred sons is married to blind Dhritrashtra. (Buitenen, The Book of the Beginning, 103).He also arranges that sickly Pandu marries two princes Kunti and Madri. (Buitenen, The Book of the Beginning, 105)
Thus as an elder he is always anxious that the young men of his family should marry at the right time and the linage should continue. In his anxiety to ensure their marriages, he many times commits transgressions which badly affect number of lives. Like his abduction of Amba, the Kashi princess spoils her plan of marriage with her lover Salva. Even though Bhishma allows her to leave after she expresses her love for Salva, Salva refuses to accept her as she was won by Bhishma after defeating him. She goes back to Bhishma, requesting him to marry her, but he refuses to break his vow of celibacy and sends her back. Thus rejected, she nurtures a deep rooted hatred for him and finally becomes a cause of his fall. Similarly the indicators also hints that Gandhari was also deceived and she was not aware that she is going to be married to the blind prince. Kunti and youthful Madri were married to impotent Pandu. Thus in his anxiety to ensure that the male members of his family should marry and produce progenies, he spoiled the lives of number of women. It was his blind attachment to his notion of duty, which prevented him from respecting the rights of others when it clashed with the interests of his family members. But probably he learned some lesson from the Amba episode and after this he did not venture into misadventure of abducting princess to be married to the male members of his family, probably he was growing mature with age and though it better to use other means than show of power to have the work done. Like princess Madri was purchased by paying bride prize.
Iravati Karve tries to give voice to the sufferings of these women as she says,
“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 the authority. In his zeal to perpetuate his house, he had humiliated and disgraced these royal women” (Karve, p.14)
Karve also says that he did not deliberately humiliated these women, but due to his obsession to serve his family, he became indifferent to women, as it is obvious form his refusal to intervene at the time of Draupadi’s humiliation in the Sabha Parva.(Karve, p.17). Has this indifferent to women had arisen because he denied himself the love of a woman and permanently sealed his heart for them? Is the absence of tender love in his life made him insensitive to women?
Bhishma’s blind submission to throne makes him liable to be used on number of occasions. Though Vichitrvirya was to be married, it was Bhishma who was sent by Satyavati to abduct the princess. The gallantry and bravery of the step son was used so that the useless prince can have wives and no wonder that Vichitrvirya dies due to excessive indulgence. (Buitenen, The Book of the Beginning, 96)
His adherence to his oath of celibacy creates conflict with Amba once and it also leads to the situation when the linage was about to become extinct. When Vichitravirya dies issueless, Satyavati asks Bhishma to produce sons on the widows of Vichitrvirya. According to the prevailing practice of ‘Niyoga’, dead husband’s brother is allowed to produce a son on the sonless widow. But he refuses to break his vow of celibacy and finally Vyasa was called for the same purpose. (Buitenen, The Book of the Beginning, 99)
Vyasa is another grandfatherly figure in the epic, who also suffers from the anxiety of protecting the linage. When Gandhari gives birth to a ball of flesh and throws it away, Vyasa intervenes. He asks the ball to be brought, cut into hundred and one pieces and from them the children springs up.
Bhisma’s promise about protecting whoever sits on the throne of the Hastinapur, also seems to be creating lot of complications. In spite of the repeated injustice done to the Pandavas like attempt of burning them, Draupadi’s humiliation and Duryodhana’s refusal to return part of kingdom to the Pandavas, he appears to be helpless. He could not stand for justice. Though he tries to prevent the war, he finally becomes commander-in-chief of Kaurava’s army and mercilessly kills large number of soldiers. (Pandeya, Bhishmaparva)  Here his Kshatriya ego seems to be dominating him and he takes pride in killing the enemy. The philosophy of pre-destination and limitations of human will is also reflected in the epic when Bhishma in spite of all his gallantry and wisdom appears to be just a pawn in the hands of the destiny.
Finally Bhishma probably realizes the futility of his life and understands that due to his blind adherence to the throne of Hastinpur, he had become an obstacle in the victory of the Pandavas and tells them the way by which he can be removed from the scene.
    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”( Dinkar, P. 50)
(Love for the Pandavas and the service for the Kauravas, what can be achieved by this divided loyalty)
On the death bed also the epic makes the grand old man to deliver the long sermon on morality which are titled as Shanti Parva and Anushasan Parva.
Iravati Karve says that Bhishma’s participation in the war was his last effort to prevent the destruction of his own clan. During the first ten days of war, when he was the commander-in-chief, no major warrior from the Pandava’s side was killed. But his efforts did not bear fruit. She says that his whole life has been a fruitless sacrifice and those last ten days were climax of futility and sacrifice. (Karve p.8) 
The epic denies pleasure of life to Bhsihma, but he is bound by duty to the throne of Hastinapur and can not renounce the world go to forest. Is it a personification of the philosophy that an ideal person, even if he remains in the world should not be attached to the pleasure. But Bhishma seem to have remained attached, not for enjoyment, but for serving. Did his situation conditioned him to take pleasure in serving?
Karve writes that when a man set out to sacrifice himself and do good to others, he can become completely ruthless in carrying out his objectives. Her following observation, gives an indication of how Bhishma’s apparently good actions can ultimately harm the people,
“The injustice done by idealists, patriots, saints and crusaders are far greater than those done by the worst tyrants” (Karve, p.17)
Though little far fetched, it have a point. We do come across the people who might have definitely done certain good things for the society, but they then go into the mould that they can do no wrong and do not introspect.   
Mythologization of Bhishma’s birth also have a message. The seven Vasus (Demigods) stole the cow of sage Vashistha and they were cursed by the sage that they will be born on the earth. Out of seven Vasus, Dyaus, was the one who actually stole the cow and was cursed to have long life on the earth. The other six Vasus who only assisted him were allowed to leave their mortal body soon. These seven Vasus were born to Shantanu and Ganga. Six brothers were drowned by Ganga immediately after their birth. But Devavrata was compelled to stay for very long years due to his sin. (Buitenen, The Book of the Beginning,93)
Probably the epic wants to convey the message that the earth is not a very pleasant place and those who are sinner had to stay on the earth. Bhishma indeed had a long and apparently very painful life. Epic deprives him the pleasures of life, makes him to sacrifice and finally all his linage was almost wiped out in front of his eyes, when he was lying on the death bed, the bed of arrows. He protected the throne for long, but finally it was won over by his own grandnephews i.e. the Pandavas by killing other branch of grandnephews, the Kauravas. The lineage that he protected and extended by forcibly carrying away the princess and buying them for marrying to sick, blind and impotent princes of his family was ruined to dust. What the hidden message the epic tries to give? Is it trying to say that blinded by the love of your family if you violet somebody’s rights like Bhishma had done in case of Amba and  Gandhari, it will finally led to destruction. The things might come back to you with vengeance.
About the mythologization of Bhishma’s birth i.e. his being a cursed demi-god and born to Ganga, and his slavish submission to the throne of Hastinapur, Sadashiv Dange have a postulation that probably his mother was of obscure origin and to bring sanctity to  his character his birth was mythologized. It was this complex of being born to obscure mother which had probably affected his behavior, when he could not take stand against the injustice, nor did he thought he is entitled to rule and sit on the throne, but sought satisfaction only by serving the throne as he felt indebted. (Dange p.94)
Gautam Chatterjee says about his submissive behavior,
“……, the arrogantly rude Duryodhana was often able to bring Bhishma into submission merely by reminding him that Bhishma had partaken the salt of the house of Kuru” (Rukmani, p.153)
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.
 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. 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.)

 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?
About Bhishma’s inability to take a resolute stand against injustice and lessons that can be learned from it, Chatterjee writes,
“……the Mahabharata war could have been avoided, if only Bhisma had acted more carefully and forcefully, at different junctures. His inability to come to grips with his dilemmas became instrumental in changing the course of history……….But then again, had he been able to resolve them, there would have been no epic and no lesson to be learned by successive generations” ((Rukmani, p.162)

1.      Buitenen J.A.B. van, ‘The Mahabharata, the book of the Beginning’, The University of Chicago Press, 1973.
2.      Buitenen J.A.B. van, ‘The Mahabharata, The Book of Virata, The Book of the Effort’, The University of Chicago Press, 1978.
3.      Dange S.A. ‘Myths from the Mahabharata, Vol.3’, Aryan Books International, New Delhi, 2002.
4.      Dinkar Ramdhari Singh ‘Kurushetra’ Rajpal and Sons, Delhi, India, 2003.
5.      Karve Irawati, ‘Yuganta The end of an epoch’, Orient Blackswan, Hydrabad, 2008.
6.      Pandeya R.S.‘Srimanmaharashi Vedvayasapranit Mahabharata’ (Hindi) (In six parts), Gitapress, Gorakhpur.
7.      Rukmani T.S. ‘The Mahabharata: What is not here is nowhere else’, Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 2005.
8.      S. Radhakrishnan, “The Bhagavadgita” HarperCollins, New Delhi, 2004.

9.      The Mahabharata (Critical Edition), Ed.- Sukthankar and Karmarkar, BORI, Pune, 1944-60. 

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