The sense of duty, honesty, integrity, etc. is of paramount importance when it comes to defining the person. But what should be one’s duty? To follow one’s friends, relatives, well-wishers, no matter what, even if it clearly seen that they are toddling on the path of adharma (wrong-doings)? The Mahabharata throws three such heroes whose moral dimension could be questioned – Bhishma, Drona and (to a smaller extent) Karna.
First, let us inspect the life and behaviour of Bhishma. Having sworn to protect the throne of Hastinapur from internal and external threats and not to die till he sees the throne in complete safety (this part could be interpolation), Bhishma’s intentions were very right and sacred. But as it happens sometimes, one’s vows become one’s own impediments. Bhishma had lived a ripe old age when Pandu and later Dhritarashtra were crowned kings. By calculations, if Bhishma who was near 21 when he made his vows, he would have been around 45 when Shantanu died. After Chitrangada’s rule for near 5 years, and then Vichitravirya’s life from 12 to around 25 later, and when Pandu became a king after completing the education, Bhishma would have been close to 80. After the eventual return of Pandavas, he would have been close to 100. There were no real enemies around. The succession of throne was assured and Vidura was present as the embodiment of Dharma, himself.
When the Pandavas returned to Hastinapur, and after the final rites of Pandu, Vyasa appeared at the palace and convinced his mother to retire to the forest. “O mother, dark times are coming up ahead. You will not be able to witness the destruction of your own race. You must therefore come with me and retire to the forest.” Satyavati retired to the forest and her two daughters-in-law followed her. Bhishma too, after having considered the throne of Hastinapur safe, renounced the royal garbs and retired to the forest with his step-mother and step sister-in-laws. Did he hear what Vyasa said to his step-mother? I don’t think so. He didn’t retire for whatever reasons.
In my opinion, Bhishma was obsessed with his own image – in his mind and in the minds of others. He was obsessed with his title, Bhishma the terrible; obsessed with his own greatness. His words speak to us of his megalomania – and a megalomaniac cannot be a great leader, certainly not a positive force. A great leader is one for whom the other is greater than himself, more important than himself, who transforms himself in his encounters with life and its challenges, creates metamorphoses around him, should be able to rise to levels of higher values, deal with issues from a higher moral plane, leaving the stands that conventional morality demands when occasions call for it.
In the moral sense too, Bhishma failed many times, specifically during these incidents:
- When Draupadi is dragged to the court, Bhishma hides behind an argument of a woman belonging to the husband vs. the right of the husband to cast his wife as a gambling bet. He says he is not sure about what is right and what shastra says in this regard. When Draupadi was actually being disrobed, was it not the duty of Bhishma to take a stand against such a dastardly act – duty be damned, allegiances be thrown away?
- After the end of 12 years of exile and 1 year incognito, Pandavas stake their claim back. Bhishma agrees that Pandavas have not been discovered in their 13th year and have completed the bet. But he fails to force Duryodhana. Had he taken a firm stand, perhaps the war could have been avoided.
- The final act of misplaced duty was to fight on the side of Duryodhana.
Granted that Bhishma was duty-bound to support the current king in residence at Hastinapur. But this was not an ordinary war. He knew that outcome of the war would result in severe mass-destruction. Does one’s sense of allegiance and vow greater than the path to righteousness? Besides was he not related to the Pandavas in the same way? Had Bhishma decided to abstain from the war, chances are Drona would have done the same. With Drona out, Kripa and Ashwathama too would have abstained. Take this super-heroes out of the war equation and many kings too would have considered this an internal affair between the brothers. So there is a big “IF” here whether the war would have happened at all? This is a very hypothetical situation but a situation that cannot be ruled out completely.
Finally, there is one more hypothetical situation. After the death of Vichitravirya, Satyavati implores Bhishma to ascend to the throne and take Vichitravirya’s brides as his wives. Here Bhishma sticks to his own well known vows. Satyavati argues with him that his vows were made in her accord and such a situation was not foreseen. But Bhishma says “nothing doing”. This forced the Niyoga on Ambika and Ambalika with Maharshi Vyasa and (eventually) Dhritarashtra born blind. Had Bhishma realized that the greater good and purpose outweighs his own vows, Bhishma would have become a great king, Dhritarashtra not born blind, the question of succession not arising at all, etc.
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