Thinking of Bhishma Pitamah

As Amma and I were on our morning walk, we got talking about a cousin of mine who is going through a rough patch. I commented saying, tell her to think differently and take different actions, just praying to different Gods won’t help. Then for some reason I commented “Even the great Bhishma Pitamah was lying on a bed of arrows, because the Karmic account had to be settled. So difficulties come because of something we did in this life or some previous life and they can be overcome with right thoughts and actions, and the only way to cancel out the Karma cycle is to meditate and become a Buddha”. The next 20 odd minutes we kept discussing Bhishma’s life and it dawned on me that this man’s life is like a self-help book. Whatever situations you find yourself in, think of this great man’s life and you may find the answer.

Here are some of the things that we discussed and lessons that I draw from them –

  1. Karma is like the account book of the soul. Every action and thought has an entry on either the debit or credit side. The reason Bhishma Pitamah had to lie on a bed of arrows is because during a hunting trip in some previous life of his, he lifted a snake and threw it out of the way thinking he was saving its life from the hoofs of his horse, but the snake fell on a thorny cactus plant and died a slow painful death. This is one of the reasons given. So even if your intentions are good, but the result of your action gives pain to any living creature, its bad karma and you pay for it. Think of the consequences before taking action :). 
  2. The other reason given for Bhishma to lie on a bed of arrows is that he had overstayed on Earth. He was supposed to only live across two generations and he lived across four. So the Earth refused to accept his body and the Sky (Akasha) could not accept his body because he hadn’t fulfilled his role to be a father as he remained celibate. The Mahabharata is a magnificent epic because it brings out the thinking that people of that day and age had. Nature was worshipped and respected. No one tried to interfere with Nature. I am again reminded of our South African tour guide Roger, who is a cancer survivor. He took us to the Maropeng Museum that traces the history of human beings on Earth and on the way he mentioned about the fact that he was a cancer survivor and that his wife doesn’t like it when he says he shouldn’t be alive. I can empathise with his wife but its equally true that Nature balances itself every now and then. Sometimes the disease epidemics and floods or droughts are Nature’s way of telling us that she is overburdened and needs to bump off a few thousands of us. 7 billion human beings ! and just one fragile Earth. Its so important not to overstay our welcome – at anyone’s home and definitely not on Earth. 
  3. The third reason given for Bhishma to lie on a bed of arrows is that he had taken the vow of celibacy for his father and he wasn’t supposed to touch any female. Since Mother Earth is female, his body was not to touch her. Teaches one the importance of keeping your word, whatever be the circumstances. 
  4. The reason for Devavrata to be renamed as Bhishma is because of the vow of life-long celibacy  and of service to whoever sat on the throne on his father (the throne of Hastinapur). His father Shantanu (a descendant of Bharata, the King after whom India is named), wanted to marry a fisherwoman Satyavati, whose father refused, because Shantanu already had a son in Devavrata and his daughter’s children would never be rulers. Emperor Shantanu became despondent. To alleviate his father’s despondency, Devavrata promised that he would never stake a claim to the throne of Hastinapur and would remain a life-long celibate so that no child of his also wouldn’t stake a claim. Shantanu’s abound in today’s world … especially the political world with several Cheap, oops Chief Ministers having several wives and they still aspire to marry some young woman even as they have adult grandchildren. What we don’t have is Bhishma. Think about Stalin and Azhagiri, sons of the (late) Mr. Karunanidhi and you can understand Shantanu in a minute. But Bhishma is a different kind of son. One often says that you can never repay the debt you owe to your parents and its true. What a father and mother do for their child is totally without any expectation (most of the time) and how do you repay that? In my opinion, Bhishma is the only man who managed to repay his debt to his father and mother Ganga. In today’s world, we see children ditching their parents in their old age, not even getting them medical attention and in some extreme cases abandoning them…. Children need Bhishma’s example to understand how Karma comes back. Abandon your parents and you in turn shall be abandoned. You don’t need to take any “bhishan” vows, just be human and treat them with love and care. 
  5. The whole Amba-Shikhandi-Bhishma affair is fascinating. So Amba is the eldest of the three sisters whom Bhishma kidnaps from the Swayamvara ceremony for his half brother Vichitravirya, the King of Hastinapur. She was in love with Salwa, the ruler of Saubala, who tries to intercept Bhishma on his way to Hastinapur but loses the battle. Vichitravirya refuses to marry a woman who is in love with another man and Salwa refuses to marry Amba because he lost the battle and of course Bhishma refuses to marry her as he had taken the life-long vow of celibacy. Enter  Sage Parasuram who tries to intercede on behalf of Amba with Bhishma, but is unable to win him over. So he offers her a way out by telling her to do penance and appeal to Lord Shiva. Shiva  gives her the boon that she will be instrumental in the death of Bhishma. She would take birth as a princess in the house of king Drupada, but as a consequence of another boon would be able to transform herself into Shikhandi (a male) and thus cause Bhishma’s death. Thats exactly what happens on the 10th day of the Kurukshetra war, Shikhandi comes on Arjuna’s chariot and when Bhishma sees him, he knows its Amba and refuses to fire arrows at her. Arjuna manages to fell the great warrior Bhishma hiding behind a woman Amba-Shikhandi. If only Rahul Gandhi had taken the time to read just this episode from the Mahabharata !! But that’s a wasted thought. Some of the things that we can glean from this episode – A woman was not to be forced into marriage. You stick to your word even when God asks you to relent. Sage Parasuram is the 6th avatar of Maha Vishnu and Bhishma refuses to break his vow even for him ! That transformation from a Man to a Woman and vice-versa is possible. Did they allude to transgenders or Lesbians or Gays … some Men are born with a Woman inside them and some Women are born with a Man inside them and it seems that was perfectly acceptable in those times. Even the great warrior Arjuna spent a year as a transgender. We need to be an inclusive society.
  6. Even after the auspicious time of Uttarayan, Bhishma couldn’t die and he asks Bhagwan Krishna about it. Krishna reminds him about how he had kept quiet during Draupadi’s disrobing by Dusshasana even though he was the eldest and knew right from wrong. Bhishma had allowed an adharmic act to happen just because he put his vow above righteousness. Bhishma then asks for Draupadi’s forgiveness and dies right after ! The other way this story is told is that Draupadi laughs as Yudhistir asks Bhishma to pass on his vast knowledge of righteousness to the Pandavas before dying. She laughed saying “When you couldn’t differentiate between right and wrong at the time of my disrobing, how will you impart the knowledge of righteousness to your grandsons?”. I don’t know if this story is true but it could be because Draupadi was a formidable woman and the question she is supposed to have asked is the right question ! Anyway, the lesson for us is not to keep quiet when something wrong is happening whatever be the vow we might have taken. We need to raise our voice and take action against what’s wrong. So cat on the fence in matters of right and wrong is not a good position to be in. Take the right stand. 

I can go on… Bhishma’s life is truly fascinating and I wish we teach our children about ethics, morality and the way to live using stories from the Mahabharata. Every character makes for an interesting debate and all points of views are right. An unparalleled epic that stays relevant forever in all contexts.

Taken from the Italian artist Giampaolo Tomassetti’s article –

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