Bheeshma the Terrible

Continued from: Krishna: A Study in Transformational Leadership
Bheeshma here is obsessed with his own image – in his mind and in the minds of others. He is obsessed with his remaining Bheeshma 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, 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. 

It is this higher moral plane that Bheeshma fails to rise to. Bheeshma lets his sense of conventional morals stand in the way of his doing what is right, in doing what is the larger good. And Bheeshma would do that again and again. Throughout his life, Bheeshma would show that he is unable to rise to the level of higher morality. He would show this to such an extent and so clearly that even people who love him dearly, who respect him greatly for his integrity, would fail to confide in him, entrust him with their knowledge, their feelings, as Vidura does when he holds back from him the fact that he knew the Pandavas were alive when Bheeshma thought they were dead and was sad for their death after Duryodhana had the house of lac built for them set fire to. Vidura suspected, perhaps rightly, that if Bheeshma learnt that the Pandavas were alive, he would, in his integrity, reveal that fact to Dhritarashtra and he to Duryodhana, and the lives of the Pandavas would be in danger again. 

Another instance when Bheeshma fails to rise to a higher moral plane is when Draupadi was being disrobed in the dice hall of Hastinapura. Here is this noble princess, a bride of the family, dragged by her hair out of the inner apartments of the house to which she had retired because she was in her monthly periods, and brought into an assembly of kings and princes, including her husbands, their cousins, King Dhritarashtra who is like a father to her and Bheeshma who is like a grandfather. The revered acharyas of the royal family are seated there, there are numerous other guest kings and she is wearing a single piece of cloth as custom required in those for women under her condition, and that piece of cloth is stained with her blood. After being brought there in such a humiliating way, further attempts are made to injure her dignity and self-respect, partly to humiliate her husbands through it and partly to punish her for her dignity and self-respect. 

Eventually, in the later interpolated brilliant version of the story, on the orders of Karna, Dushshasana in a demonic act tries to pull even that single cloth away from her, thus taking the august Bharata assembly to a nadir to which perhaps no other royal assembly in the history of mankind ever fell. Right before the eyes of the eldest and most respected of the Bharatas, right before the most powerful and skilled warrior of the day, right before this man who was the very embodiment of kshatra dharma, the dharma of the warrior, a woman is being humiliated as no woman in the history of this land has been humiliated and when she appeals to him to intervene, he sits there pondering over whether it is right for him to intervene or not, pondering over whether this woman being thus humiliated has become a slave or not, because her husband had wagered her in the dice game after he had lost himself – as though it made a big difference if she was a slave, as though if what was being done was being done to female slave it is perfectly acceptable to him. Bheeshma’s first duty as a kshatriya here was to save that woman from what was being done to her, to stop the utterly barbarous deeds happening before him. Instead, by sitting there analyzing the question whether the men doing that evil deed had the right of ownership over the woman or not, Bheeshma shows how bound he was by ordinary morality, how, perhaps, below even the level of ordinary morality he was. Bheeshma here fails utterly to rise to the level of higher morality, which Krishna does effortlessly when he comes to Draupadi’s aid by magically sending her an endless supply of clothes, so that the more clothes Dushshasana removes, the more clothes he finds her draped in. 

At the end of twelve years of life in jungles and one year of successful life incognito, the Pandavas claim their land back. The Kauravas are bound to give it back to them as per the agreement they had made during the dice game. Duryodhana refuses to do so, telling that they have been discovered before the time ended. Bheeshma, who admits that the Pandavas have not been discovered before their time and therefore Indraprastha should be given back to them and says so before everyone, is not able to stand for what he believes is right and fails to force Duryodhana to give Indraprastha back to the Pandavas. He meekly swallows Duryodhana’s refusal and is forced to support him, following his lifelong policy of supporting whoever is on the throne of Hastinapura. Here again his morality is of the lower, conventional order and whatever leadership he exhibits, if he exhibits any at all, is conventional leadership and not transformational. 

Yet another striking example of Bheeshma failing to rise above conventional morality, failing to rise to higher morality, is when he decides to fight on the side of Duryodhana during the Mahabharata war. Bheeshma knows, and he says so repeatedly, that Duryodhana is wrong, is unrighteous, the battle he is fighting is unrighteous. He also says repeatedly that dharma is on the side of the Pandavas, that their cause is just and in his heart he supports them. And yet, because of his loyalty to the Kuru king on the throne at the moment, because he is bound to Duryodhana by the ‘debt of wealth’ as he puts it, he not only fights the war on the Kaurava side, but also becomes the commander-in-chief of the Kaurava army for the first ten days of the war, until his fall. He had the same relation with the Pandavas and the Kauravas, both were his grandnephews, and if he believed that the cause of the Pandavas was right and that of the Kauravas wrong, then he should have fought on the Pandava side. 

The whole brutal war in which millions lost their lives would perhaps not have been fought at all, it is possible, if Bheeshma had decided to fight on the side of the Pandavas. Chances are that even Drona and Kripa, those two formidable warriors and pillars of Kaurava strength, would have joined him to be with the Pandavas – for, to them too the just Pandavas were dearer than the unjust Kauravas; and it is possible that following these, a vast section of the kings who joined Duryodhana to form his eleven-akshauhini army too would have joined him and because of these turns the war itself would have aborted. True, it is all hypothetical, but that certainly was a possibility that could not be counted out altogether. Had Bheeshma risen to higher values, had he not allowed his sense of morals to stand in the way of his doing good, it is possible that a great calamity could have been aborted, millions of lives could have been saved, endless sorrow to millions of others could have been avoided, and the tragedy that enveloped India post-Mahabharata war would not have taken place at all. 

It is also interesting to speculate if the war situation would have risen at all, had Bheeshma risen to the levels of higher morality on that early occasion when Satyavati asked him to break his vows that had by then become redundant and meaningless and threatened the very continuation of the Bharata line and the survival of the empire – as an outstanding leader should have risen, as all transformational leaders do rise, as the sage sitting in meditation did in our story when the king asked him if he had seen the deer fleeing by, as Jesus did when he said “he among you that is without sin, let him first cast a stone” to the Pharisees who had brought the adulteress to him. 

Of course, the following too is merely hypothetical. The empire of the Bharatas, the empire of Shantanu, was in all probability the mightiest empire of the day. If someone like Bheeshma had taken it over, with someone as powerful and as competent as him at the helm of affairs, chances are the evil forces that subsequently rose up in different parts of the country and threatened dharmic ways of living, the evil empire that Jarasandha was building up with Magadha as its capital, with Paundraka Vasudeva from Bengal in the east, Naraka from the extreme northeast, Kalayavana from the northwest, Bheeshmaka in the southwest, Shishupala in central India and Kansa in Mathura as his allies, which Krishna fought much of his life to wipe out, would not have become a possibility at all. By the time Krishna had Jarasandha killed through Bheema, the emperor had already conquered, captured and thrown into goals eighty-six kings from the length and breadth of the country. 

Similarly, to continue the speculation, had he taken over as king, had he married and produced children, or alternatively had he performed the niyoga instead of Sage Vyasa, chances are that the eldest child would not have been born blind and the complicated situation of the Mahabharata that eventually leads to the war would not have risen at all. The Mahabharata makes it very clear that Ambika, Dhritarashtra’s mother, expected Bheeshma [or one of the other eligible Bharatas] in her bed that night of niyoga and that it is as much the shock of seeing the sage as the fact that it was not Bheeshma [or one of the other Bharatas] who was to perform that act that scared her and made her future child blind. 

Examples could be multiplied but the foregoing makes it clear that Bheeshma repeatedly remains bound by conventional morality, by old world values in a world in which those values were increasing becoming redundant, even ridiculous. Bheeshma reacts to the situation from an idealistic standpoint, and not from an existential standpoint. He looks at the world around him not from the present but from the past. What is, is not as real to him as what should be. The vows he took as an adolescent becomes the be all and end all of his life. That moment becomes the peak of his life and Bheeshma climbs no more. There are plateaus thereafter, and there are valleys and abysses, but no more peaks in his life. 

As a transformational leader, Bheeshma fails completely. 


In comparison, Krishna comes across to us as an outstanding transformational leader in situation after situation. Again and again, throughout his life, he takes the risk of rejecting conventional morality and rises to levels of higher morality for a cause he espouses throughout his life. In doing so, he calls upon himself possible censure of his own generation and generations to come. But to him his cause was larger than himself, larger than his personal ego, larger than his name and fame, which could all be sacrificed for the larger good, the welfare of mankind, lokasangraha. If we accept the tradition that says Krishna was God incarnated in flesh, then that goal was what he states in the Gita as: 

Yada yadi hi dharmasya glanir bhavati bharata,
Abhyutthanam adharmasya tadatmanam srjamyaham.
 Paritranaya sadhoonam, vinashaya cha dushkrtam
 Dharmasansthapanarthaya sambhavami yuge yuge

“Whenever dharma declines and adharma prospers, then I create myself. For protecting the good and destroying the evil, for establishing dharma, I am born again and again in age after age.” 

And if we look at him not as an incarnation but as another human being like us, then again we find this is what he did all his life: protecting the good, destroying the evil, establishing dharma where adharma reigned. And this mission was so sacred to him that at its altar he could unhesitatingly sacrifice his personal glory. Krishna burnt – so that others might get light and warmth. 

Looking at Mahabharata’s Krishna [who is very different from the Krishna of the Bhagavata and in popular lore], we find that several of his actions are of questionable morality from a conventional standpoint. During the Mahabharata war, he encourages unrighteous acts repeatedly – and many of these acts that the Pandavas perform throughout the war are first conceived in his brain. 

Thus we find Krishna suggesting to the Pandavas a treacherous plot to kill Drona on a day when Drona’s fury and skill in the warfield had become impossible to face and he was causing the death of thousands of Pandava warriors by the minute. Drona was like a whirlwind on that day, uprooting mighty warriors and ordinary soldiers alike by their hordes. Seeing the Kaurava side losing the battle, Drona had entered into a savage rage and after using other weapons to decimate huge chunks of the Pandava army, he had eventually begun using the brahmastra itself, one of the most powerful weapons of mass destruction of the day. Krishna realizes the grave seriousness of the situation and tells the Pandavas how Drona is simply invincible – not even the lord of the gods himself can defeat him in war so long as he wields weapons in his hands. Krishna asks them to forget conventional morality and rise up to the need of the hour. True, he tells them, slaying one’s teacher in the worst of sins, but time has come to do it. “The only way he could be killed is if he lays down the weapons,” says Krishna. “And therefore, Pandavas, forget about the sin of killing one’s teacher and do what is needed for victory… I believe he will give up battle if he hears that his son Ashwatthama is dead. Someone should now go to him and tell him that Ashwatthama has been killed.” 

A mean, vicious, cruel plan. Unrighteous to the core. 

And that precisely is what they do, though Arjuna, the acharya’s favourite disciple, does not like it and Yudhishthira has grave compunctions about it. Bheema readily goes and slaughters an elephant called Ashwatthama that belonged to a king on his own side and then goes and announces to Drona loudly that Ashwatthama has been killed. The acharya does not trust him, and approaching Yudhishthira, known for his integrity, asks him if it is true. Yudhishthira is closer to Bheeshma in spirit and in his perception of dharma; he lacks the daring and courage, the higher vision of Krishna. Left to him he would not tell the lie – knowing this Krishna rushes to his side. The Mahabharata describes Krishna as very distressed at that time – he has reasons to be agonized, this is a decisive moment, Yudhishthira in his obtuse understanding of dharma is capable of giving up the whole plan – and with it the war and Krishna’s mission in life – establishing dharma in a land from which it was fast disappearing. Krishna tells him, “If a furious Drona fights the battle this way for just half day, let me assure you, your entire army will be decimated. I beg you, Yuidhishthira, save us all from Drona. This is a time when a lie is superior to the truth.” 

Satyat jyayo’nrtam vachah– lying words are superior to the truth. It takes the courage of a Krishna to say that. It takes the vision of Krishna to justify that.
Bheema too rushes to Yudhishthira and informs him that he has just killed an elephant called Ashwatthama and begs him to listen to what Krishna says and tell Drona that Ashwatthama has been killed. And then Yudhishthira, the one everyone believed was incapable of telling a lie, is more or less persuaded to lie, though he still clings to the truth in word and lies only in spirit, as is frequent with those of conventional morality. He tells the acharya aloud that Ashwatthama has been killed and then adds softly that it is an elephant that has been killed, so softly that Drona does not hear those words. 

The Acharya, the revered and beloved guru of the Pandavas, is shattered by the news of the death of his son who was dearer to him than his life – it was for the sake of this son that he had taken up weapons, it was for his sake that he had climbed down from the austere heights of brahmanahood and become a kshatriya by profession, if he was spreading death in the battlefield like a firestorm now, it was all because of what he had to do for the sake of his son. Drona suddenly loses all interest in the war and laying down his weapons, announces to Duryodhana and others that it is now for them to carry on the war, he is finished with it. 

Drona sits down in his chariot in deep meditation and enters a world of serenity that only the great yogis know and his soul leaves his body. It is while his body is thus seated, after his soul has departed his body, that the man born to kill him, Dhrishtadyumna, Draupadi’s brother and the son of Drona’s one time friend and later enemy, cuts off his head. Arjuna rushes towards him to stop that horrid act, shouting at Dhrishtadyumna not to kill the Acharya – he is Dhrishtadyumna’s acharya too – but he is too late. So vile and despicable is this action, and such the subsequent fury in the Pandava camp itself at this treachery to the revered acharya, that Dhrishtadyumna, the perpetrator of the final act of this sordid deed almost loses his life at the hands of his own friends and partners. 

True, Drona had done many things a brahmana, a man of his exalted status who was supposed to spend his time in studies, teaching and meditations, should not have done. In the last moments of his life he was engaged in a war and slaughtering men by the thousands – when a brahmana is not allowed to kill any living thing under any circumstances. And, moments before Dhrishtadyumna cut off his head, he was using the brahmastra against all and sundry – the first rule taught to a man before he is given the brahmastra is that it could be used only against another man who knows the brahmastra and not against ordinary warriors. In his blind fury, sharpened by Duryodhana’s incessant badgering that he was not sincere in the battlefield, that he did not want to kill the Pandavas, he had forgotten that first lesson of morality that rules the use of that consuming weapon. But in spite of all that, the betrayal of a man of his quality and stature in such a heartless fashion, that too by his own disciples, is an immoral act. 

Unless, of course, you look at it from the perspective of the higher morality – that of lokasangraha, the larger weal. This mighty warrior, the man of many virtues, was battling on the side of darkness and his victory would have meant a failure to dharma, failure to Krishna’s mission of establishing a righteous world, to his vision of a world of light. Conventional morality cannot justify it, the morality of the word cannot justify it, but from the vantage point of higher morality, morality based on not just rules and regulations but on the larger good, it is not only justifiable, but essential. Except for that one thing, the larger good, it flouts all other rules of established behaviour in cultured societies, social norms and traditions, the values cultivated through centuries of noble living. But Krishna was looking at the situation not from the standpoint of lower morality, but from the perspective of the higher dharma for which he had lived all his life. 

True, by choosing the higher dharma over conventional dharma, over the dharma of tradition and customs, Krishna made himself open to the criticism that he betrayed trust, that he fouled, played the game of war treacherously, as treacherously as the Kauravas had played the game of dice. How then, one may ask, is Krishna different from the Kauravas? 

Well, there is one difference between the actions of the Kauravas in the dice hall of Hastinapura and Krishna’s act of treachery in the battlefield of Kurukshetra. And that is a big difference. The actions of the Kauravas in the dice hall were immoral – below the level of ordinary morality – and were prompted by greed, by anger, by vengeance, by jealousy, by bitterness and resentment, by intolerance, and by a dozen other dark and evil powers in their hearts. Whereas Krishna’s actions in Kurukshetra were of higher morality – above the level of ordinary morality – and they originated in his desire for the welfare of the world, in the desire to establish a just society, to destroy the powers of darkness and bring light to the world. 

Higher morality and immorality are often confused. The wicked fall into immorality and truly great men soar to the level of higher morality. 

Krishna again uses breaks the rules when he had Bheema kill Duryodhana treacherously at the end of the war. Here again, as in the case of Drona, he had no choice except to follow a path, take his followers through a path, that the world at large, with its values of ordinary morality, would call immoral. Yudhishthira, when he challenged Duryodhana to come out and fight, made a stupid blunder by promising that if Duryodhana beat any one of the Pandava brothers, using any weapon of his choice, then the entire kingdom that they had won through the war would go back to him. Duryodhana was the best mace warrior of the day, with none of the Pandava brothers, including Bheema an equal to him. He could easily have beaten Sahadeva or Nakula, or even Arjuna or Yudhishthira himself in mace and the kingdom would have gone back to him and all the war, and all those deaths and misery, would all have been wasted. It was partly the nobility in Duryodhana and partly his arrogance that made him choose Bheema for a battle with the mace – and even Bheema was losing and the only way to save the situation was to do what would be ordinarily called an act of adharma, but was necessary for the welfare of the world and therefore a higher dharma. And that is what Krishna chooses to do when he asks Bheema to strike Duryodhana below the waist and kill him against the rules of the mace. 

Continued to: The Interpolated Story of Disrobing of Draupadi


More by :  Satya Chaitanya

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Views: 3472      Comments: 2

Comment Bhishma was an idealistic and consevative person. He was also very stubborn. Bhishma could never raise to the higher plane of morality. He was not ready to change at any cost. Bhishma did not see the things in a larger perspective. He was so obsessed with his vov that he could not see anything beyond that. Keeping his vov intact was more important for him than saving his clan from getting extinct.

It seems Bhishma wanted Dhritrastra to remain the king of Hastinapur as he was a blind man and easy to handle with. Bhishma owed more to Pandu, who was the real king, than Dhritrastra, the caretaker king. Bhishma, Dhritrastra and other kurus accepted Yudhishthira as the heir of pandu and the next king. Yudhishthira was made the crown prince. Bhishma was so obsessed with the caretaker king Dhritrastra that he looked other side when Dhritratra was trying eliminate the heir of real king and the future king of Hastinapur. Wasn't it Bhishma's responsiblity to bestow the kingdom on the heir of the actual king, when he grew up?

Bhishma adviced to Dhritrastra to give half the kingdom to Yudhishthira when Yudhishthira demanded his kingdom. It means Bhishma accepted Yudhishthira as a kuru king. Now as there were two heirs of vichitravirya ruling the kingdom of kurus, Bhishma's duty was to protect both Dhritrastra and Yudhishthira. But Bhishma sided with Dhritrastra in war. The best way for Bhishma to keep his bow intact was to not to fight from any side when the two kuru kings were fighting.

Anand Shankar
28-Oct-2012 05:39 AM

Comment Mr. Chaitanya,

I have two observations to make:

(1) It seems to me that in both our epics, conventional morality afflicted most first-borns: as you say Bheeshma and Yudhishthira frequently trapped themselves in it, but so did Rama. Rama made indefensible choices (I cannot imagine Krishna ever forsaking those he considered his devotees or friends) like abandoning Sita when she was pregnant, demanding that she prove her chastity twice and banishing Lakshmana as a form of capital punishment. I think the explanation / defence Rama offered for those choices was that he was fulfilling his dharma as a king and that dharma superseded every other duty he had. This is a very conventional and narrow interpretation of duty and rings egotistical every time.

There is a kind of paralled with Bheeshma in Rama's giving up of the kingdom on Kaikeyi's wish - it led to his being perceived as noble and exemplary among the people of the time - that he would do anything to uphold "truth", that he would never have the word of his father or his own broken, no matter how awful the keeping of it might be.

Does it seem to you, that when he became king, that Rama was more concerned with this image of himself than what you might regard as doing the right thing, from a human standpoint? i.e. standing by your (pregnant) wife, no matter what?

It's also amazing how nobody questions his chastity. Did taking an "eka-patni" vratam exempt him from scrutiny for the one year of separation from Sita after Ravana had abducted her?

(2) It is always unconvincing to me when I hear something like women had more sexual freedom in the Vedic ages.
- Why do the epics make such a fuss of men being monogamous or giving up a family-life? I have never cared for Bheeshma's vows and I do not understand why his bachelorhood is supposed to be admirable.
- The practice of niyoga is just gross. It doesn't seem like any of the women were comfortable with it and except Kunti, it doesn't seem like any of them had much control over this.
- Draupadi's marriage to all five of the Pandavas was not her choice. It was Yudhishthira who said they had to share her, since the five of them had vowed to share everything as brothers. It's unbelievable how he uses this kind of logic - was he unaware of how polyandry was perceived in his society?

25-Jul-2011 20:55 PM

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