By Swami Tathagatananda
Only a great spiritual being can guide human life to perfection. The full personality of one who has risen above human limitations while living in the world is expressed in the ancient Hindu ideal of the rishi. Such a being can be found in the person of Bhishma, the peerless son of Shantanu and Ganga, the great grandsire of the Pandava and Kaurava clans, immortalized in the Mahabharata. In the glorious life of Bhishma, thoughtful individuals will find the prototype of the true Indian hero. In the twin realms of thought and action, Bhishma is unquestionably a supreme manifestation, the embodiment of the highest aspirations of Hindu culture. The combined wisdom of balance, serenity, and chivalry, unified in his character, makes him a great exemplar of Hindu spiritual culture.
A study of Bhishma’s life in its entirety is not within the scope of this article. Nevertheless, even brief details of his illustrious life reveal his inner spiritual endowments, which are projected in his bold and meaningful actions. Upon the dull background of ordinary human existence, the character of Bhishma appears in lustrous relief. Bhishma is the eternal heroic ideal, ever shining in a world of darkness and ignorance.
Purity and Uprightness
Purity is inseparable from the Hindu concept of dharma, the sum of all our righteous relations to nature, humanity, and God. Trough dharma we are bound to one another and to God. It is a bond of duty that is cemented with love. Purity and spiritual love bind us to righteous thoughts and actions.
The most noteworthy elements in Bhishma’s character are his love of purity and dharma. His fulfillment of the vow of chastity is without precedent. Purity possessed him—it was his sole passion, the mystical bride of his soul. He was equally dedicated in his love of dharma.
On no occasion did Bhishma swerve from the narrow path of virtue that leads to eternal happiness. His loyalty to the throne is an eternal paradigm of righteous fidelity for all thoughtful citizens. He guided the fortunes of the state of Hastinapura under the most trying circumstances, when it was without a king and when it was ruled by a physically and morally blind king.
Bhishma well understood that patriotism is a noble virtue. Loyalty is the seed of social and political stability of a nation. He fought for his king until the last atom of strength was gone from his body. Tough Bhishma did not have the benefit of serving a righteous king, his loyalty to the Crown never came into conflict with his loyalty to God. His conscience and discrimination were purified by his devotion to righteousness.
Bhishma’s father had granted him a treasured boon. ‘I grant you a boon. You can hold death at arm’s length. You can die when you please.’ After a long life of righteous action and purity in every aspect of his illustrious career, Bhishma delayed his death until the end of the Kurukshetra War. Throughout the battle, Bhishma gave his inner blessing to the virtuous Pandava brothers and told them they would attain victory over the Kauravas. Although he was obliged to fight on the side of the Kauravas, his heart was with the Pandavas because theirs was a righteous cause.
The Ethical Warrior
The code of ethics for war in those bygone days was incomparably superior to the way that wars are administered and fought today. Firstly, both sides in the conflict had to be equal in strength and forces. They both agreed to follow the ethical rules of war and chivalry. The rules dictated that the battle should be fought by representatives of the two armies—between two archers or two chariots. If one warrior withdrew, the other had to withdraw as well, without harassing his opponent. Wars could be fought not only with weapons; they could be waged with words too. If such was the case, neither opponent could use weapons. If cowards emerged in the fight, they were not killed as they ran from the battle in fear of their lives. The fearful and the unprepared soldier could not be attacked. All those who served the warriors or the battle in any capacity except as soldier—the fag-bearers, the cymbal and drum-holders, for example—could not be attacked. The war was to be fought in the day-light hours after which both armies would retreat to rest and dress their wounds. During the evening hours, the opponents became friends for the time being and abandoned their enmity. They visited each other’s camps to discuss the battle and other matters in a normal manner. War was righteous for a kshatriya, but a righteous war could not be motivated by hate or revenge. It could only be motivated by righteousness—war in the interest of righting a wrong.
Respectful to these ethical rules of war, Bhishma had blessed the Pandavas and assured them of victory. He said to them, ‘Where there is dharma, there is victory and you will be victorious.’ Bhishma’s heart was with the Pandavas, who were righteous. His compassion, magnanimity, and willing self-sacrifice have a singular distinction and signify his moral eminence.
Bhishma had sworn to Duryodhana that he would kill ten thousand valiant warriors of the Pandava army every day. But he also told Duryodhana that he would not kill the Pandavas and would offer them advice about their welfare. By the tenth day of the Kurukshetra War Bhishma had decimated large portions of the Pandava army which left the latter in deep despair. Not knowing what else to do, the Pandavas approached Bhishma and asked him how he could be defeated. Bhishma knew that the Pandavas must emerge victorious, as theirs was a righteous cause. He told them to place Shikhandi at the head of the army when they went to battle in the morning. And Arjuna could position himself behind Shikhandi and fight with him.
In keeping with the ethical code of war, Bhishma had resolved he would never fight with a woman or a eunuch. They were both considered to be weaker than other warriors and at a disadvantage in war; therefore, fighting against them was considered unrighteous. Shikhandi, fighting on the side of the Pandavas in the great Kurukshetra War, was a transgendered person. Besides, he had been a woman in his previous life. Bhishma had repeatedly avoided fighting with Shikhandi on the battlefield. He preferred death to the breaking of his noble vow.
Faced with Shikhandi and overwhelmed by the horrible toll of the war on both sides, Bhishma was overcome with guilt and repulsed by the war. He felt that he was the cause of the destruction of the noble kshatriyas, what to speak of his own relatives on both sides. At this point, he said to himself, ‘I can die when I please. I have decided. I want to die. I will welcome death now, at this very moment. His intuition affirmed this thought to be correct. Thus it came to pass that at the appropriate moment Bhishma was struck by a shower of Arjuna’s arrows and fell from his chariot. Bhishma, who delayed his death by his own will, now waited for the auspicious time, when the sun turns northward, to depart from the world.
Krishna referred to Bhishma’s military genius in the ‘Shanti Parva’ of the Mahabharata: ‘We have never heard of another like you—merciful, pure, self-controlled, seeking the welfare of all, and supreme in military skill. Ferocity and brute force and terror-inspiring cruelty are not real elements of military prowess at all. They belong to the law of the jungle and not to the realm of humanity. Perhaps his most heroic trait is the love of purity, truth, and righteousness that compelled him to reveal to Yudhishthira at the proper time during the battle the means by which he could be disabled. Following Bhishma’s advice, the Pandavas defeated the invincible warrior and leader of the Kauravas.
Bhishma’s self-denial is even more remarkable than his self-realization. He had faced every event in his life with equanimity, discrimination, and dispassion. He was unaffected by the opposing emotions of elation and humiliation. He was one of the greatest soldier-generals of all time. Moreover, he was one of the noblest, purest, and most compassionate chivalrous warriors the world has known.
Bhishma was adept in the science and art of governance for the good of the people and for establishing and propagating dharma, artha, and kama through righteous chastisement, dandaniti. The quintessence of human wisdom regarding civil authority is found in the ‘Shanti Parva’ and ‘Anushasana Parva’ of the Mahabharata. In these sections of the epic, Bhishma’s description of the essentials of statesmanship comprises one of the finest portions of this sacred text. Bhishma taught that a righteous government is the root of all national and individual virtue. While Bhishma did not advocate the use of a popular vote, he emphasized that the popular will be ascertained in important matters of state. It was Bhishma’s conviction that political wisdom matured with age, that pure living, experience, and learning led to sound judgments; and these were more valuable than the ephemeral effects of franchise, which might be exposed to corrupt practices.
His thoughts on statesmanship were expressed in the teachings he gave Yudhishthira while waiting for death on his bed of arrows. His devotion to Krishna brought the Lord to him during his last days. To encourage Bhishma as he lay in the throes of unendurable pain, Krishna told him: ‘Bhishma, you have sixty-five days more left to live in this world. I will be by your side when you give up this bondage to reach your home. When you go, all that immense knowledge will go with you and no one will be able to get it. I want you to talk to Yudhishthira about all that you know. You can do it. You must now inspire Yudhishthira who is grieved because he was the cause of the death of his cousins. He has been pacifed by Vyasa himself, and he wants to rule the kingdom as well as his ancestors did. You must make him shake of this sorrow and rule the kingdom properly. You are the only person who can help him.’
Then Krishna gave Bhishma a special boon: ‘I will grant you a boon. This pain and this weakness will not be there till you die. Your memory will be unclouded. Your perception will be as keen as the blade of a sword. You will be able to unravel the most intricate knots of the mysteries of the universe. You will know all that there is to know.’ Whereupon Krishna removed all of Bhishma’s pain and distress, so that his faithful devotee might perform his final duty to him. Still, Bhishma wanted to know the reason why Krishna asked him to impart this knowledge, since Krishna was the embodiment of all knowledge and could have done it himself. Krishna told Bhishma that though he could give these teachings to Yudhishthira, he wanted Bhishma’s name and righteousness to be remembered forever. ‘Your utterances will be on a par with the Vedas and will bring undying glory to you. So speak on.’
Bhishma could only marvel at the mysterious ways of the Divine. His spiritual radiance and teachings cast a spell all around as he imparted his knowledge to Yudhishthira from his bed of arrows. All he then did was in accordance with Krishna’s sublime command.
Bhishma’s very first action was to bless Yudhishthira. He consoled and renewed his drooping, guilt laden spirit with the sweetest tenderness: ‘My child, the duty of a kshatriya is to fight and kill. You had to kill. You have been a real kshatriya. You must not grieve for having done your duty.’ Bhishma’s great compassion relieved Yudhishthira of his guilty conscience regarding all the sins of commission and omission on the part of the Pandavas. Ten the humble Yudhishthira received from Bhishma’s lips all his knowledge. Bhishma’s concise teachings on the highest science of ruling a kingdom fully satisfied Yudhishthira.
Bhishma’s lengthy illuminating discourse highlighted the necessity of a king’s devotion to God, to truth, to behaviour that is above reproach, to straightforwardness and firmness combined with compassion. He taught Yudhishthira how to guard his own safety as well as the safety of his subjects, to conceal his innermost thoughts and place implicit confidence in himself alone, and to surround him-self with like-minded noble persons in his court. He spoke to him of pleasantness in speech, purity of action, and proficiency in all matters related to the kingdom and its service to the people. He spoke to him about every aspect of dharma: Destiny is powerful, but self-effort can modify it. Truth is all-powerful. One who adheres to truth can never fail in life. One should practise self-control, humility, and righteousness. One should be neither too soft nor too stern. One should be able to adjust to the circumstances. Weakness is not a virtue and it breeds many evils. Compassion should be combined with stern discipline. Tolerance of irregularity and dharma leads to downfall. Life rusts in indolence; it shines in industry. Hatred is the most terrible poison. Love is the one constructive force and is all-powerful. It can reclaim even a sinner. Dharma is one’s only friend, for it follows the body that has been abandoned by all.
Finally, Bhishma told Yudhishthira how to transcend all sorrow by meditating on God and all his glories. Bhishma left his body at the auspicious time, of his own will. Krishna told him, ‘Death is waiting at your doorstep, waiting like a servant for your summons. You have my permission to summon him.’
The extent of Bhishma’s greatness is manifest in his wisdom and saintly life which relate to the highest verities of existence. The whole of ‘Anushasana Parva’ is devoted to an exposition of the vital aspects of ethical life. In Indian thought, the purity of individual ethics forms the spiritual edifice of social life. Without this foundation, the welfare of entire nations tumbles down like a house of cards, as history repeatedly demonstrates.
Lakshmi’s declaration in the ‘Anushasana Parva’ contains the quintessence of practical thinking and wisdom, as it relates to the individual and social welfare of a nation. Lakshmi dwells as the goddess of happiness in the hearts of pious, merciful, vigorous, and self-controlled people. Lakshmi scorns the idle, licentious, and impure.
Yudhishthira asked Bhishma a very important question: What should one who seeks auspiciousness in life do during the journey of life?’ Bhishma gives his glorious reply: He must have deep faith in God. He must be full of purity and devoted to meditation. In his social relations he must avoid three things: cruelty, theft, and immorality. In his speech he must avoid four things: improper talk, cruel speech, tale bearing, and lying. In his mental relations he must realize three assets: exclusion of thought about others’ affluence, friendliness to all beings, and a strong conviction of the truth that ‘as we sow so we reap’.
Individual ethical life forms the foundation of the sovereign edifice of enriched social life. Bhishma laid stress on what he called our common duties. They include, among others, compassion, truth, purity, passionlessness, detachment, and honesty. His exposition of the four ashramas reveals his strong emphasis on our ascent to the highest state of spiritual realization through study, service, meditation, and renunciation. Krishna praised Bhishma’s wisdom, goodness, and devotion when he said to him, ‘There is none like you. You have been purity itself. Your wisdom is unmatched among men.’
The cherished crown of the fullness of knowledge so abundant in Bhishma is God-realization. Krishna granted him spiritual victory and ever- lasting fame. It was Bhishma’s reward for his immaculate, intuitive, and unwavering spirituality which dwelled in him as an ever-present radiance, an ever-kindled rapture. When Bhishma departed from the world in majestic splendour, Krishna’s prediction about the impact of his glorious personality was verifed: ‘After the demise of this supreme soldier, saint, and sage, the world will be like a dark, moonless night.’
- Originally published as "Bhishma: A Model of Heroism" by Prabhuddha Bharata November 2008 edition. Reprinted with