A vast majority of the problems the world is facing today are results of the failure of our soft skills: relationship skills, communication skills, persuasion skills, conflict management skills, assertiveness skills and so on. The problems between the US and Iran, between Israel and Palestine or India and Pakistan, the not-so-cold war between Christians and Muslims that is fought the world over, the problems between Shias and Sunnis in Pakistan or Hindus and Muslims in India are all examples for this failure.
The Mahabharata, which is the story of how the Bharatas failed in managing a conflict among themselves, leading to an all-destroying war, gives us several beautiful lessons in these skills. A strikingly beautiful such lesson is given in the Stree Parva of the epic: a lesson in conflict management and assertiveness.
The epic war has just ended. Eighteen akshauhinis have been offered to death in what the epic repeatedly calls a grand sacrifice. A single akshauhini is 21,870 elephants, 21,870 chariots, 65,610 cavalry, and an infantry consisting of 109,350 soldiers. Eighteen such akshauhinis is what death has claimed as his part of the sacrifice in which each man seemed to be more eager than the next to court death in the hope of victory and glory in this world or honor and pleasures in the next.
Queen Gandhari, arguably the noblest woman in the epic of Vyasa, the mother who refused to wish her son victory on every single one of those eighteen horrible days when he came seeking her blessings in the morning before he went into the war field to face death, her only words to him being ‘yato dharmas tato jayah’, ‘where there is righteousness, there shall be victory’, has lost all her one hundred sons, including the one that sought that blessing. There are just three warrior chiefs left on the Kaurava side: Acharya Kripa, Ashwatthama and Kritvarma, apart from Yuyutsu, Dhritarashtra’s only son to survive the war, the son born to him in a Vaishya woman; and on the Pandava side, there are just the five Pandavas alive, apart from Krishna, their friend, cousin and guide. The Pandava brothers whose sons and other surviving male relatives have been brutally killed in their sleep the previous night by a vengeance-seeking Ashwatthama go to meet Dhritarashtra and pay their respects to him since the war has come to an end. In his fury Dhritarashtra tries to crush Bheema, the slayer of all hundred of his sons, in the mighty grip of his powerful arms that have the strength of a thousand elephants. Krishna’s foresight saves Bheema from a horrible death. Subsequently, following Krishna’s furious words to him, the bereaving father is pacified and the Pandavas now go to meet Gandhari.
When the mourning mother of a hundred dead sons hears of the victorious Pandavas coming to her, she gets into a terrible fury. This woman, the wife of blind Dhritarashtra who blindfolded herself for life, is a woman of immense spiritual power who would a little later curse Krishna himself and eventually cause his death and the destruction of all his people. Vyasa, her father-in-law and the greatest sage of the age, is endowed with immense yogic powers, which included the ability to look into other people’s hearts and see their most hidden thoughts and the ability to become one with anyone and understand what is going on inside them, understands her intentions and comes rushing to her. He reminds her how her son Duryodhana had come to her every morning of those eighteen days of war, seeking her blessing for victory and how she had refused to bless him each time. “It’s you who repeatedly said ‘victory comes with dharma’ on all those eighteen days,” he tells her. “And now,” he reminds her, “when the righteous have won the war, you have no right to be furious at them.”
Gandhari’s answer is very moving – she is a mother, she tells her father-in-law, and she has no ill-feelings towards the Pandavas, nor does she wish them harm; but great is the sorrow in her heart for her sons and she is going mad with grief. She admits the Pandavas deserve to be protected by her, just as they deserve to be protected by their mother Kunti. She also admits that the Kurus were wiped out because of the crimes of Duryodhana, her brother Shakuni and Dushshasana and Karna. She does not blame Arjuna, she tells Vyasa, nor does she blame Bheema, Nakula or Sahadeva, and nor indeed Yudhishthira. She would forgive them all, she says, and yet one thing she cannot forget: the way Bheema treated Duryodhana in that final battle of the mace between them, right before the eyes of Krishna.
Duryodhana was certainly superior to Bheema and it is because Bheema knew this that he crushed Duryodhana by hitting him below the waist against the rule of the mace. This, Gandhari tells Vyasa, flares up a terrible fury in her every time she thinks of it.
She then asks Vyasa a question:
“How can brave men, for the sake of their lives, abandon in battle the dharma prescribed by wise men? How indeed can they?”
Gandhari here is inspired by the same vision that inspires the words of Vyasa in theBharata Savitri, those concluding, despair-filled words of the sage poet.
Summarizing his own spiritual wisdom and the insight born out of the experience of every sage of this land, the epic poet there tells us that life is a limitless series of births and deaths, that each one of us has had numberless mothers and fathers, sons and wives, and we are going to have numberless more of them. We have lived through innumerable meetings and partings, will live through countless more of them, just as we are now living through new meetings and partings every day. And in this eternal journey, there is only one thing that will stand with us: dharma. Dharma is the source of all worldly comforts and possessions; pleasures come from that, prosperity comes from that, everything comes from that. Vyasa’s advice is: never give up dharma; not out of fear, not for pleasures, not out of greed, nor even for the sake of life itself. For, dharma is eternal, and joys and sorrows transitory. The soul is the Eternal, what makes it appear bound is transitory. And yet people do not live by dharma. Why, asks the sage, why?
In this eternal journey called life, births and deaths are minor events, as insignificant as changing old clothes and putting on new ones, as the Gita puts it. The only thing that counts is the long journey itself. Should we then give up dharma and change the course of that journey out of fear, out of greed, for small pleasures, or even for the sake of the current life itself? “How can brave men, for the sake of their lives, abandon in battle the dharma prescribed by wise men? How can they?”
Katham nu dharmam dharmajnais samuddishtam mahaatmabhih
Tyajeyur aahave shooraah pranahetoh kathanchana? – Stree 14/21
How indeed can they, for something as small as a life?
Those who are not familiar with Sanskrit will miss something beautiful here. The word Gandhari uses for battle is ‘aahava’, and while it means a battle, the more common meaning is a sacrifice. Aahava is related to such words as aahuti, havana and homa, all related to sacrifices. To Gandhari, life is a sacred sacrifice, a battle is a sacred sacrifice. And in that sacrifice, how can you abandon dharma, which is the very essence of it, the only thing that makes its rituals meaningful?
Vyasa does not get a chance to answer that question. For, the Pandavas have by now reached Gandhari and are standing before her. Bheema hears Gandhari’s question and, taking over from his grandfather, responds to her.
If Vyasa pacifies Gandhari in words that are wise and tactically brilliant, during the course of which he refers to the best in her and asks her to live up to it and also reminds her that according to her own past words the Pandavas are at no fault in what has happened to her sons, Bheema’s actions and words now give us an unforgettable lesson in conflict resolution, something we will not normally expect from a man who, among all the five Pandavas, is the only one known for rash action and impetuous deeds.
Vaishampayana who narrates the story tells us here:
Tat shrutvaa vachanam tasyaah bheemaseno’tha bheetavat
Gandhaareem pratyuvaachedam vachas saanunayam tadaa – Stree.15.1
Hearing those words of hers, Bheemasena, as though in fear, answered Gandhari politely in these conciliatory words.
Gandhari had ended here words in a question to Vyasa, in the words of which she implicitly admits that victory should go to the righteous. But can a man who says he is righteous, she asks, give up righteousness for the sake of saving his life? Can he still be called righteous? The wise masters of dharma have laid down rules for battles with the mace – righteous rules. Can a valiant hero break those rules in battle in order to save his life and yet be called righteous, heroic? Can victory won so be called victory won by dharma?
Gandhari was not the first one to ask that question about the victors of the Mahabharata war. She will not be the last either. The Mahabharata war might have been won by the righteous, but it was not won through righteous means. It is said that the Pandava kingdom was taken away from them through foul means, and they won it back through equally foul means. Gandhari’s question will be asked again and again, so long as the Mahabharata lives: Is victory won by foul means righteous? Is victory won by the righteous through foul means righteous? Can the righteous who adopt foul means for a righteous cause be called righteous?
Bheema is courteous, polite, supplicant, and his tone conciliatory as he answers Mother Gandhari’s question. His posture and tone express trepidation. His intentions are clear: he wants to appease Gandhari. For, he knows he has done wrong, though he perhaps had no other choice.
The first thing Bheema does is to apologize for his deeds. “Please forgive me,” he says straight away, and then he adds, “For, whether my action was right or wrong, I did it out of terror. I wanted to save myself. And let me tell you, Mother, your son could not have been killed by anyone in a fair battle, so powerful was he. It is this that forced me to do that terrible, disagreeable act.”
That admission of guilt itself should have pacified Gandhari to some extent. For she loved Bheema, she loved all the Pandavas, loved them all unreservedly. True she could not always do what she wanted to do for them, what she should have done for them, but she was among the first to weep for them when a misfortune fell on them, which was usually caused by her son. She knew it was her duty to protect them all, just as it was Kunti’s duty as their mother. Her affection for them was no less than their own mother’s affection for them. She has known them from a young age, she has known everything that they had to go through, she knows how what was theirs was snatched away from them, how they were humiliated, how their wife was humiliated in an assembly of kings, how attempt after attempt was made over their lives. She also knows how in spite of all this the Pandavas have been forbearing beyond words. At the birth of this son of hers whose treacherous slaying she is now mourning, she herself had asked her husband to get rid of him, for he was ill-omened. And yet she is a mother, and a proud mother, for this son whose atrocities she would never forgive, whom she would not bless with victory, was also a brave man, valiant beyond description, immensely powerful, loyal to the last drop of blood in him, and noble in so many ways, a leader of men who invoked life-long loyalty, a king whom every one of his subjects admired, against whom they had not one word of complaint through he ruled them for over something like two decades.
It is this mother that Bheema appeases by apologizing for what he has done, and then adds he had no choice, for her son could not have been killed by anyone in a fair battle.
A thrill must have passed through Gandhari’s bereaving heart at those words of Bheema who hated Duryodhana from the day they met, hated him as no one else hated him, hated him as he hated no one else. Gandhari is a kshatrani, a kshatriya woman by birth and by marriage. The purpose of her life was, her culture, her upbringing, taught her, to give birth to valiant sons who would live fearlessly and give up their lives in the battlefield. Nothing would torment a kshatrani as news of their cowardice and nothing would please her as tales of their valor. And this is what Bheema has said – your son was invincible. There was no one who could have beaten him in a fair battle. The only way to beat him was through foul.
A little later, Gandhari would thank Bheema for these words of his. She would forgive him. She would say that his death was no death since Bheema praises him in such words of appreciation. And admit with remorse in her heart that all the evils that Bheema mentioned, he, her son Duryodhana, did indeed commit.
Bheema does not stop with apologizing for his wrongs and praising Duryodhana’s valor and skill in battle, though. That would have been cheap of Bheema. Because while he knows, as he admits, what he did was wrong, he also knows he had to do that, Duryodhana deserved to be treated exactly as he was treated.
This is the fearless Bheema speaking. This son of Kunti knows no fear, neither of men, nor of gods or demons. He never took one breath in fear. That is how he has lived all his life, and now, towards the end of his life, he was not going to be cowed even by this great ascetic woman’s anger.
After admitting that he did kill Duryodhana foully and saying that her son was invincible in fair battle, he goes on to say how Duryodhana deserved to be treated exactly as he was treated.
Bheema reminds Gandhari that it was unrighteous, through treachery, that Duryodhana had defeated Yudhishthira earlier in the game of dice, that Duryodhana had right from the beginning being treacherous with them. He reminds her of the words Duryodhana had spoken to Draupadi, who had been dragged into the middle of an assembly of courts on his orders, though she was then having her monthly periods and was wearing only a single piece of cloth as custom required and that cloth was bloodstained. Unforgivable words. Intolerable words for a kshatriya hero like Bheema, intolerable words for any man of the least honor.
He reminds Gandhari of how Duryodhana had pushed away his cloth and revealed his left thigh to Draupadi, slapping it arrogantly and inviting her to come and sit on it. The left thigh is traditionally the seat for a woman – a wife, a beloved or a woman one has bought with money to have sex with – and by his action Duryodhana was calling Draupadi a whore on the face of her husbands, right in front of the Kuru elders like Bheeshma, Dhritarashtra, Vidura, and so on, right in front of an assembly of kings who had come to attend the game of dice.
The fearless Bheema, who had not a minute ago apologized for killing Duryodhana, now says he deserved to be killed right then, in that dice hall, as he sat there with his left thigh bared.
When Bheema praised Duryodhana’s valor, his invincibility, the impossibility of defeating him in fair battle, Bheema was not saying those words just to please Gandhari. What he said was the simple truth. And now when he says that Duryodhana deserved to be killed right in the assembly, he is again not reminding Gandhari of an action she considered the foulest among the numerous evil deeds of her son, he is again not attacking her at her weak spot, but merely speaking the plain truth. Duryodhana deserved to be killed for his shameless act right then and there, and if Bheema had done that not one righteous man in the assembly would have blamed him for it, not even Dhritarashtra, Duryodhana’s blind father, nor Karna, who, though he was loyal to Duryodhana, admired valor in men, even if they were his, or Duryodhana’s, enemies.
“The hatred your son begot in my heart, oh queen,” continues Bheema, “tortured me every day of those twelve years I spent in the forest.”
“There was no other way than killing your son,” Bheema concludes. “We have done that now, and we are at peace.”
The fury in Gandhari had already disappeared before this open apology and the fearless words that followed. And yet there is one thing the mother in her is unable to forgive. This is what Bheema had done to her other son, Dushshasana. Bheema had torn open his heart, and drunk his heart’s blood. That, Gandhari says, is unheard of cruelty, unheard of savagery, unforgivable.
Bheema assures her he did not do it – he was not capable of doing such a thing. One does not do it even to an ‘anya,’ an ‘other’ and an enemy, and how could he have done that to Dushshasana who was his own brother? A brother, says Bheema, is like oneself, and he certainly did not drink Dushshasana’s blood. True, he tore open his heart, true he gathered the blood in the cup of his palms, true he raised it to his lips, but the blood did not go beyond his lips and teeth.
And again Bheema does not stop at defending himself by clarifying the situation. He goes further, by saying that what he did there was what he had to do. In the dice hall, as Dushshasana brought Draupadi in by dragging her by her hair, he had vowed that he would tie up her hair after applying to it the blood of the man who had dared to do touch that hair sanctified by the holy water from the rajasooya sacrifice. He was bound to fulfill his oath and he was doing that. And he tells Gandhari she herself would have been unable to respect him, Bheema, if he hadn’t fulfilled his vow. A woman’s honor had to be avenged, and he was doing no more that.
Kshatradharmaat chyuto rajni bhaveyam shashvatee samaah
Pratijnaam taam anisteerya tatas tat krtavaanaham. – Stree 15/19
If I hadn’t fulfilled that vow, oh queen, I would have for all eternity fallen from the dharma of the kshatriyas; and that is why I did that.
Shaashvatees samaah – Valmiki’s words. For all eternity. The words Bheema chooses here to express his feelings remind us of the curse of Valmiki, the adikavi, our first poet, who uses those words to curse the fowler who had killed the male from a pair of lovemaking birds on the banks of the Tamasa.
Not content, the Bheema turns the table around and says Gandhari has no right to blame him, Bheema, for his actions. On the contrary, it is she who deserves to be blamed. With uncommon courage, Bheema asks Gandhari: “All their life your sons kept doing adharma. You did not stop them then. What right do you have to accuse us of adharma now?”
I am sure Gandhari must have been stunned by those words of Bheema. I am sure even Vyasa must have been shocked. I have no doubt Yudhishthira was by now trembling in fear like a leaf caught in a storm. Those words can come only from a heart that has suffered much, only from a heart that has not once erred from dharma. They can come only from a complete trust in dharma, from absolute inner purity. Such fearlessness cannot exist in a heart that has once swerved from the right path.
Gandhari’s heart must have been screaming in agony by now. She knows she had failed as a mother. Failed again and again. She had failed as a mother when Duryodhana as a child poisoned Bheema and tying up his arms and legs, threw him into the Ganga at Pramanakoti. She had failed as a mother when he plotted to send the Pandavas along with Kunti to the house of lac in Varanavata and to end their life there by setting fire to the house. She had failed as a mother when the game of dice took place. She had failed as a mother when Draupadi was brought into the dice hall and humiliated so shamefully. She had failed repeatedly, endlessly.
There was only one thing she could do now – beg for kindness from Bheema. And she does that, for after all, Bheema is a son to her too. In a cringing voice, in the tone of a poor village woman who has lost her all, she asks Bheema, addressing him as an unvanquished hero, “A hundred sons of this poor old man! A hundred of them! You killed them all. Couldn’t you have spared just one of them? One that had done the least sin?”
Those words she uses for Dhritarashtra, ‘this poor old man’, speak much about her helplessness. She is now appealing from her misery, her unspeakable wretchedness. Begging for his kindness too late.
“One son to perform the final rites of these two blind old people who have lost their kingdom?”
Blind. Old. Without kingdom.
She calls Bheema here tata, dear child.
She forgets certain things here, though. A few moments ago she had called the Pandavas her children. And they are alive. She had said there is no difference to her between her own sons and the sons of Kunti. Besides, one of Dhritarashtra’s sons is alive – Yuyutsu, his son by a Vaishya woman who served him when Gandhari was pregnant.
But of course, Gandhari is a mother who has just lost a hundred sons to a war. She has a right to forget a few things.
After asking that question, Gandhari suddenly changes. Without waiting for Bheema’s answer, turning away from him, Gandhari, tormented by the death of her sons and grandsons, asks, “Now, where is that king?” She is asking for Yudhishthira. He is no more her beloved Yudhishthira, but ‘that king”, “sa raajaa.”
Bheema who began by apologizing to her has reduced her to total helplessness. It is no more in her to be angry with him. Her original intention was to curse him and his brothers. Bheema’s initial humility, his conciliatory tone and his appreciation of her son, took away her anger and brought out the love she originally had for him and the other Pandavas. His subsequent bold assertion that what he did he was bound to do forced her to see the truth of his words. His final accusation that it was she who was more at fault than he was, reduces her to misery – for that again is the mere truth.
The whole situation would have been completely different if Bheema had straight away accused her. Bheema here shows great sensitivity to a mother’s grief and understanding in dealing with it. Through his sensitivity and understanding, he reduces a potentially explosive situation to a harmless one.
Bheema shows several admirable qualities here that raises him in our estimation. He is able to see the problem from the standpoint of the other person. The person who is angry here is a mother whose one hundred sons have just been killed, and the gifted ones among them killed savagely and subjected to unforgivable humiliations after their fall. Her standpoint is sure to be very different from that of the victorious Bheema. But in spite of that, he is able to understand her feelings and sympathize with her.
Bheema shows no hesitation in owning up what was wrong in what he did. He admits openly that Duryodhana was an invincible warrior and killing him treacherously was a cowardly act, not becoming of a noble hero. He did it, he admits, because otherwise he would have been beaten and the kingdom would have gone back to Duryodhana and the whole war would have been wasted.
Having owned that up, he asserts his position strongly. Perhaps he would have left it at that, but Gandhari’s further words make it necessary that he asserts himself more, and then he points out that the fault was as much hers as it was his and that of his brothers, if not more. It requires great courage to say those words to Gandhari who was a few moments ago in a fit of fury. Gandhari is forced to admire this and retreat.
Bheema also succeeds in dis-personalizing the conflict. He says his killing Duryodhana and Dushshasana were less acts of hatred and more acts of principle. He had taken the vows, and if he had not lived up to them, he would have been eternally looked down upon. As a kshatriya, he was bound to kill them, and he did that. And he assures her that even in the moments of his triumph he never forgot himself or who his victims were. He did not drink a drop of Dushshasana’s blood really, but took it only up to his lips and teeth, for he remembered that it was the blood of his own brother, and hence his own blood. He fulfilled no more than the letter of the vow, no more than what was absolutely necessary as acts of honor.
Ultimately, Bheema never for an instant forgets who he is and who the woman he is talking to is. He never forgets to show the reverence she deserves, even when putting the responsibility of what has happened on her shoulders.
Interestingly, theories of conflict management say that in a typical conflict situation, there could be five different conflict handling orientations, depending on whether you are assertive or unassertive, cooperative or uncooperative. One orientation is the competitive one, which is when one is assertive and uncooperative. Under this orientation, one sticks to one’s position assertively, totally unwilling to accept any other point. A second is accommodation, the opposite of competition, when one is unassertive and fully cooperative. Here one sacrifices one’s interests, forgets one’s standpoint, and submits oneself to the other and accepts his views. A third is compromise, where one goes half way and the rival walks half way towards a solution; and a fourth is avoidance, where the issue remains unsolved, to gather more energy and to explode eventually at a later time because both parties pretend that the issue does not exist and avoid facing it and each other.
The ideal approach to resolving a conflict, however, is a fifth one: collaboration, the win-win solution, in which both parties involved work towards a solution that is good for both of them, that fully accommodates the views of both. Collaboration requires clarifying differences. It requires openness, trust, authenticity and spontaneity in relationships. It requires character. Bheema displays here openness, trust, authenticity and spontaneity. But more than anything else, it is character that Bheema displays here, and Gandhari responds to it with character.
If Bheema’s behavior here is an excellent lesson in conflict management, it is an even more superb lesson in assertiveness. While not being aggressive and destructive, Bheema stands up to his position, which he considers right, expresses his thoughts, feelings and beliefs in direct, honest ways. His speech shows his respect for himself and his healthy self-image, and perhaps so do his tone, his gestures, his posture and other nonverbal messages, about which the Mahabharata tells us nothing. After years of being at the receiving end of Duryodhana’s cruelty, he is now in a position of power as the victor of the war. But there is no attempt on his part to dominate or humiliate the mother of the man who was the cause of all his sufferings for years, no attempt to threaten her and get his way. He just states the facts, and does so fearlessly. Bheema does not attack Gandhari even when he tells her that she has no right to call them unrighteous. True, he tells her, they have done unrighteous deeds. But that would not have happened if she had fulfilled her duty to her sons as their mother.
Yudhishthira’s behavior, in contrast, is unassertive, passive. He takes on himself the blame that is not his, is apologetic in a sense very different from Bheema’s when he apologizes, is steeped in helplessness where there is no need to be, and insults not only himself but kshatra dharma, the way of the kshatriyas, itself by begging Gandhari to punish him for following it. When he calls himself a sinner, he is calling Bheema too a sinner, as he is calling Arjuna, his other two brothers, Krishna, Abhimanyu and all the other men who fought on his side. Few of them felt so about themselves. Certainly Krishna does not feel so. He felt no need to be apologetic about the war once it became unavoidable though he kept trying to avoid it until the very last moment, even stooping so low as to try to tempt Karna to betray his friend Duryodhana and join the Pandava side in the hope of avoiding the war.
We have reasons to believe that Yudhishthira is not really honest here. This is perhaps his way of showing that he is more righteous than anyone else around, certainly more righteous than Bheema whom he considers an unthinking, unfeeling brute. This is Yudhishthira the Just playing the game that he has played all his life, the game he is best at playing. The morally righteous man who will never do anything wrong, though under his command the Pandavas kept doing wrong after wrong during the war.
Bheema’s conflict resolution and assertiveness saves not only themselves from Gandhari’s curse, but also Gandhari herself from it. For, had Gandhari cursed the victorious Pandavas, her position with them would have been rather difficult. She and Dhritarashtra would have been forced to live with the same men whom she had cursed. As things turn out, she lives as the most honored woman in Hastinapura for fifteen more years with the Pandavas. The Pandavas served her as children would serve a beloved mother, and even Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, served her as though Gandhari was her mother-in-law and she her vadhu, daughter-in-law. Had Gandhari been allowed to curse the Pandavas, chances are the situation would have been different. Bheema’s bold, understanding, assertive action saves Gandhari from herself.
Unfortunately, it is this character that Bheema displays in such abundance that Yudhishthira lacks. He is a person who is used to, to use a Hindi expression, shooting his gun from other people’s shoulders. The war was fought more for Yudhishthira’s sake than for the sake of anyone else – it is he who gets the throne of Hastinapura. It is he who should have stepped forward and faced Gandhari. He does not. All through the encounter between Bheema and Gandhari, he is silent. It is only when he has no alternative, when Gandhari asks for him specifically by addressing him contemptuously as ‘that king’ that he steps forward. And having stepped forward, he does not show the character that Bheema shows. Every single one of Bheema’s arguments had been valid, every one of them strong, and before them Gandhari had to become silent and appeal to Bheema’s sympathy. But Yudhishthira’s approach is different. It is as though Bheema has not spoken to Gandhari at all. He offers nothing to justify himself. He does not boldly challenge her. He steps forward, his whole body trembling with terror like a coward’s, and this is what he says:
Putrahantaa nrshamso’ham tava devi yudhishthirah
Shaapaarhah prthiveenaashe hetubhootas shapasva maam. [Stree 15.26]
I am that despicable brute, Yudhishthira who killed your sons. I am the cause of the destruction of the earth. I deserve to be cursed, Oh Devi. Curse me now.”
And he is about to collapse at Gandhari’s feet in terror – bheetam, says the Mahabharata, meaning terrified, describing him. And Gandhari’s eyes fill with tears. She sighs deeply again and again, not a word escapes her lips. From within her blindfold, her eyes fall on Yudhishthira’s toenails, and the fire in them scorches them, turning them black and ugly.
Gandhari leaves the man who killed her one hundred sons without punishing him, and ends up appealing for his mercy. She scorches and turns into black, ugly things the toenails of the man who did not kill even one of them. Perhaps she would have turned all of Yudhishthira into ashes, if Bheema hadn’t faced her earlier, if it was the cowardly, cringing Yudhishthira who had first stepped forward and stood before her. As a kshatrani, Gandhari knew clearly the difference between valor and cowardice.
I wonder why Gandhari wept here. Were her tears for her dead sons who had died valiantly the death of heroes in the battlefield, or were they because it occurred to her that they were all killed for this man’s sake – for this cowardly bundle of self-contradictions who feels guilty about a war he fought for a just cause and won?
Arjuna too was reluctant to fight the war. As the war was about to begin, after the armies had assembled in the war field that first morning of the war, he dropped his weapons and wanted to retire from it all and go away. But Krishna felt the war was right and he should fight, even if it makes killing his granduncle, his teachers, his brothers, his near and dear ones necessary, and advised him the Gita. It is this war that Krishna felt was justified because there was no alternative to it that Yudhishthira is now feeling guilty about. It is his duty as a kshatirya that he did that Yudhishthira is rejecting now, that fills him with remorse now. Yudhishthira did not go to the war field to die, but to win the war. He knew the price he will have to pay in terms of the lives of those he should love and revere. But Yudhishthira was always a loser, and it was that loser in him that was standing in front of Gandhari, claiming that he was a sinner, trembling in fear and ready to collapse at her feet.
Perhaps Gandhari’s tears were at the pity of it all. In those moments before her look turned Yudhishthira’s toenails black, she must have compared this cowering, crawling victor with her invincible son who did not know what fear was.
The narrator of the epic uses two similar but very different words to describe Bheema and Yudhishthira on this occasion. As Bheema takes over from Vyasa and speaks his first words to Gandhari, courteously, politely, in supplication, his tone conciliatory, the Mahabharata calls him ‘bheetavat’, meaning, as though in fear. [Stree 15/1]. And later, as Yudhishthira speaks to Gandhari the epic calls him ‘bheetah’, meaning, in fear. [Stree 15/28]. The epic also tells us that he was trembling in dread [vepamanah – 15/25]. Bheema is as though in fear, and Yudhishthira is actually in fear. Being as though in fear is being fearless and being in fear is being afraid. And that is a big difference.
Apart from the differences between the two of them, there could be other reasons for this difference in their reactions. Yudhishthira perhaps fought the war for a very selfish purpose – for power, for the throne of Hastinapura. And Bheema fought it for a very different purpose – for avenging the humiliation of his wife, his brother’s and himself, for fulfilling his vows. He was bound to fight the battle by honor. For Yudhishthira the battle was one for ‘rajalakshmi’, for the pleasures of the kingdom, which he later realizes in no pleasure since it is tainted by the blood of many he loved and revered. For Bheema it was a battle for righteous vengeance and honor.
One other thing. if Bheema was not really afraid, then what makes him bheetavad, as though afraid? Was he putting on a show? I do not think so. It is his politeness, it is his humility, it is his sympathy for the bereaved mother, that makes his words come out slowly, as though in trepidation. This woman before him was a second mother to him, and in spite of all that her sons had done to him and his brothers and their wife, he still loved her and revered her and that love and reverence in his heart made him speak to her humbly, her words coming out as though in fear. As we have seen from his subsequent words, there was no fear in Bheema.
Bheema admits to Gandhari that he killed Duryodhana breaking the rules of righteous battle. He also admits it was at least in part because he was afraid for his life. Gandhari’s question to Vyasa was: “How can brave men, for the sake of their lives, abandon in battle the dharma prescribed by wise men?” Can a hero who does so be called a hero? Can Bheema then be called a hero? Can he be called honorable?
One answer to that question is that there are different kinds of honor and there are different things that are honorable.
In his last moments, Duryodhana did a magnanimously honorable thing. Challenging him to a battle of the mice, Yudhishthira tells him that he could choose any of the five Pandavas as his rival. And he adds that if Duryodhana won, then the kingdom would go back to him. These words of the eldest of the Pandavas shocks Krishna and he chides Yudhishthira furiously, calling him an idiot for what he has said. For there was the danger that Duryodhana chose Sahadeva, Nakula, Arjuna or Yudhishthira, none of whom was a match for him. Even Bheema was hardly a match for Duryodhana, and eventually Bheema had to use treachery to crush him. But Duryodhana proves Krishna’s fears wrong. He chooses Bheema for the battle, refusing to choose one of the lesser brothers.
That was honor.
If Bheema really crushed the thighs of Duryodhana breaking the rules of the mace out of fear for his life, then that would have been dishonorable. But perhaps what Bheema said there was no more than partially true. There were other reasons why Krishna asked him to do so, other reasons why he did it.
There are times when a hero is called upon to perform an act for which he will forever be condemned and yet duty will dictate that he does it. It is honorable then to do that act, in spite of the taint that will be attached to him for it. That is sacrificing even personal honor for the sake of duty. When Bheema crushed Duryodhana, he was answering to this call of duty, fully knowing how it will reflect on his honor. As he tells Gandhari, he had no choice in the matter.
One meaning of dharma is duty. And when duty, dharma, becomes higher than personal honor to a man, he ascends to truly heroic heights.
Note: All translations from the Mahabharata are by the author. Chapter and verse numbers are as they appear in the Gita Press Edition of the Mahabharata.